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November 5, 2013

Book Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation by Tim Manley


"Curiouser and curiouser" was Alice's commentary on the world she found down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carol's Alice In Wonderland. While the land she found herself in was populated by hookah smoking caterpillars, pocket watch bearing white rabbits, vanishing talking cats and other strange and somewhat scary beings, it probably wasn't half so strange as the rabbit hole of social networks we currently live in.

There is no mythical or fantastic country I can think of stranger than the lands of a thousand unknown "Friends" which is Facebook or the 140 characters of sometimes meaningless chatter constituting Twitter. Mobile phones and tablets are the looking glasses of today. Faces glued to screens, oblivious to the world around them, people enter into a cyber world as unreal and made up as any created by the Brother's Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. All of which makes a new book by Tim Manley, Alice In tumblr-Land (and Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation), published by Penguin Canada a pleasure to read on many levels.

Snow White, King Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and the rest of the fairy tale/folk hero gang, live in the world of social media. Chicken Little feeds her paranoia by Googling illnesses, Snow has fantasies about Ryan Gosling while perusing online photos and Beauty worries what her chic friends will think of Beast. Cinderella divorced the Prince (he wasn't gay, just kind of a prick) and moved back in with her stepmother, vowing never to wear glass slippers ever again - it's Crocs all the way for this modern girl while Arthur and Lancelot have jobs in the sharp end of the service industry and are typical twenty-something slackers.
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Manley, the creator of the blog, Fairy Tales For Twenty-somethings, has put the book together along the lines of blog posts or daily status updates on a social media site. Instead of chapters telling each character's story, each page contains a small blurb and an illustration (all illustrations by the author) of what at first appears to be meaningless pieces of information. All right, it's sort of cute Snow White has the hots for Gosling. (He's not related to the Ugly Duckling is he?) Or, how after pulling the sword from the stone, before becoming king, Arthur takes off on a road trip which includes stops at Burning Man and learning how to make a guitar out of cigar box on the streets of New Orleans.

But like status updates they are merely moments without context or substance. You don't learn anything about a person, or a character, from these types of truncated thoughts. Thankfully Manley understands this, and doesn't just leave it at that. For he uses these blurbs to gradually tell us each person's story. As we continue to read he keeps circling back to his characters gradually revealing more and more about each one.

As the book unfolds you start to see the imaginative and mischievous ways Manley has brought these classic figures into the modern world. He's taken elements of each story and combined these with a character's most distinctive traits to create thoroughly modern versions of the folk/fairy tale. Poor Robin Hood is having a hard time spreading his message of social equality. The whole robbing from the rich and giving to the poor thing just doesn't seem to be working. Changing the world is a lot harder than he thought it would be. Sure it was working on a local level, but what about nationally and globally? Going on the Sheriff's day time talk show wasn't any help - as a firm proponent of trickle down economics he and Robin had a hard time finding anything they could talk about except their mutual liking of ice cream.

As if things weren't bad enough Robin found he was having a hard time opening up about what was on his mind to those closest to him. He was even reticent around his oldest friend Little John. Is this what aging does to you, you slowly just stop talking about things he wondered? However, not to worry. Robin eventually figures things out and develops a whole social media campaign to get his message to the world.

While some people might have problems with some of the choices Manley makes in bringing his characters into the 21st century; Arthur gay, Rapunzel giving up on guys and taking up with a hot girl friend and Mulan having a sex change - she'd always been happier being one of the guys; you never have the impression he's made any of his decisions casually or simply to shock. In fact there's something quite realistic about the way he describes what happens to each of them. Sure it's done with humour, but the process each character goes through is as honest as anything you'll read anywhere else.
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Originally fairy tales and similar stories were written as a means of teaching a moral lesson or something simiilar about the world we live in. Over the years, and thanks to the sentimentality of a certain entertainment conglomerate based out of Florida and California, the lessons have either been diluted or lost. Not only has Manley updated the stories and the characters, he has also restored their original purpose. I don't mean he has made them into modern day morality tales, but he uses them to help us see what's happening in the world around us just a little more clearly.

While it might be funny to think of Sleeping Beauty as suffering from depression, Chicken Little from panic disorder and anxiety and The Ugly Duckling using her superior intellect to cover up her insecurity about her appearance, Manley's descriptions of their conditions gradually becomes uncomfortably accurate. In fact the more we read about each of them, the more poignant their stories become. However, like all good fairy tales, each of their stories has a happy ending. Chicken Little goes into therapy to deal with issues from her childhood and starts hot yoga classes, Sleeping Beauty met up with her old buddy the Prince for coffee and he listened and understood why she was sad which made her feel better, while The Ugly Duckling saw some pictures from her high school reunion posted on Facebook and realized, while she might not be beautiful, she looked right.

As we read about each of the characters we begin to think of them less in terms of who they were originally and more as people dealing with life as we know it. While Manley's illustrations remind us of their fairy tale origins through his use of familiar distinguishing characteristics, his writing turns them into something quite different. They are more than just cute cartoons or figures from stories in our past, they are characters whose concerns and problems are ones we understand. Of course humour is a big part of the book, but underneath the laughter is an insightful mind who understands the foibles and frailties of being human with compassion and empathy.

Social media is a fact of life whether we like it or not. Marshall McLuhan said the media is the message. Through their choice of media some people attempt to send a message or even comment on the media itself. Manley, while maybe poking fun at people's obsessions with social networks and the Internet, embraces the form required for its utilization and gives us an indication of its potential as a means of real communication while neither condeming nor advocating its usage. In his stories the Internet is an accepted part of life just as it is for all of us.

Alice In tumblr-Land (And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation) is a humorous and intelligent look at life in the 21st century as seen through the eyes of familiar figures from the fairy tales of our childhood. While its sub-title implies the book is geared towards a specific generation the content and humour will appeal to almost anyone. Not only is it a lot of fun to read, it is also thought provoking and smart. Like the fairy tale books of our childhoods Manley's illustrations complement the writing and play an integral part in their telling. Unlike those books however, these stories are firmly based in our current reality and the happy endings aren't dependant on anyone being rescued by a handsome prince.

Article originally published at the Empty Mirror as Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation)

May 2, 2013

Book Review: Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book by SimonTofield


The majority of animals represented in cartoons, whether animated or not, are anthropomorphized. While occasionally this giving animals human characteristics and motivations is funny, most of the time it comes across as a shameless attempt at creating a character who will appeal to a human audience. It also strikes me as a sign of laziness on the part of the those involved with creating the character. While creations like Bugs Bunny were given witty and intelligent dialogue to make them appealing, most of those responsible for creating cartoon animals today rely solely on the their "humanness" in order to make them popular.

It is far harder to take an animal and turn it into a cartoon representation of itself much as you would a human. Cartoons about humans rely on their creator's ability to exaggerate our characteristics in order to generate humour. The really good cartoonists also know not to exaggerate too much in order to ensure their audience can identify with the character. If we can see traces of our selves in the characters we are watching on screen, or reading in our daily newspaper, we find them much more appealing.

Obviously we're not going to see anything of ourselves in a cartoon animal if its being represented as an exaggerated version of itself. However if the cartoonist chooses an animal whose behaviour we're intimately familiar with, like a dog or a cat, he or she can work with those characteristics to make a successful and appealing character. One of the best examples of this today, in both live action and print, are Simon Tofield's series of books and videos featuring the animal simply known as Simon's Cat. Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book, published by Penguin Canada and Canongate Books, the fifth book in the series is just as funny as its four predecessors in the way it brings its hero to life.

Cat owners the world over are well aware of the variety of means cats will employ to get their human's attention. Under most circumstances these range from the cute to the slightly annoying. Unfortunately a cat's need for attention doesn't change whether a human is asleep or awake and they will go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure their needs are met no matter what the obstacle. I'm sure everybody who has ever owned a cat can give at least one example of the means their pet employed to rouse them from a deep slumber.

As the title of this book suggests it does have cartoons dealing with the ways cats have of ensuring their human's wake up on demand. However, what makes it even more interesting is it explores all the variations on the theme of sleeping and cats you can think of, and some you may never have even considered. While there are a variety of cartoons depicting Simon's Cat waking up his human, ranging from the real (sitting on the chest and yelling) to the unreal (peeling back the human's eyelids or stuffing a toy mouse into his mouth) the cartoons dealing with other sleep related situations might even be funnier.

There's the cartoon of the human negotiating a difficult stair case and almost tripping and falling over the cat tucked out of sight asleep on a riser. He was lucky, usually this happens when your arms are full and you're trying to negotiate a particularly dark and difficult descent into a basement. Or, in another instance the hapless man is laying on his stomach reading and the cat curls up asleep on his back. Have you ever tried to dislodge a cat from this position? If so you'll know it's next to impossible. If you stand up too straight they will panic at the sensation of falling and dig their claws into - you. So the final frame in the cartoon of the man walking bent over with the cat on his back asleep looking for a way to remove the limpet from his back will be all too familiar to most cat owners.

Then there are cats' sleeping habits, specifically the places they chose to sleep. Who hasn't found their cat sleeping, and shedding, on top of a pile of fresh laundry as is depicted in the book? Of course there's also their astounding habit of trying to fit themselves into a box, or the equivalent, far smaller than them and either succeeding in contorting themselves into what looks to be an extremely uncomfortable position or destroying the item in question and falling asleep on its remains. Of course, nothing beats the contortions they will put themselves through in order to sleep on top of a hot water radiator in the winter. Once you've seen a cat cram themselves under a window sill in order to secure their position of warmth, you'll believe them capable of anything.

As Tofield depicts cats don't only victimize sleeping humans, they have no qualms about attacking members of their own species when they are asleep either. As the kitten introduced in, Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos shows, the dangling tail of a sleeping cat is an irresistible temptation for another cat. In fact, a sleeping adult cat in general is considered an ideal cat toy by kittens until the adult cat puts his paw down, literally.

While Tofield strays away from realism on occasion, the mice holding up a teddy bear to frighten the cat or a hedgehog popping the balloon he's carrying on his own spiny body, the animals rarely take on human characteristics. In his cartoons he relies strictly on the drawings to both tell the story and for humour. Even in the videos which first brought his creations to people's attention the only sounds are those cats would normally make (which are generated by Tofield) and incidental music.

What has always impressed me about Tofiled's creations are how he can accomplish so much with so little. Even in Wake Up, the second book of coloured cartoons, the majority of his illustrations are limited to just the cat and his immediate surroundings. Occasionally he will draw more elaborate panels, but his primary focus is always on depicting the cat's behaviour and its reactions. The result, as in all his other work, is one of the funniest cartoons of an animal you will ever see. At some point every cat owner who either reads or watches one of his creations will find themselves exclaiming, "Why that's just like (insert name of your cat here)".

(Article first published as Book Review: Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics)

December 26, 2012

My Ten Favourite Reads Of 2012


As another year winds down we folk who review things bring out our lists of those things we deem the best of the year gone by. Realistically these lists are of no real value to anyone as they're incredibly subjective and reflect the views of the person writing them and nothing more. However, they're fun to put together and a good way of reminding yourself there were somethings of quality released along with the dross.

For all the claims people make about traditional publishing being in trouble or a thing of the past, there were a number of quality books released from various houses. While the news of the proposed merger between Random House and Penguin Books generated more doom and gloom predictions regarding the traditional book industry, authors are still writing and presses are still printing. Unlike previous years where I was hard pressed to find enough books to fill a top ten I could easily have filled 15 places. Oh and none of the books were self-published.

Of the books I read published in 2012 the following were the ones to leave the strongest impression. Some are from big publishers while others from small presses but no matter who published them they all made my life more interesting. For all the modern technology at our disposal and the ever increasing options available for amusing ourselves, I'm still happiest curling up with a great story. Nothing anybody's invented yet comes close to stimulating the imagination or taking you out of yourself for hours on end. You don't need any special tools or appliances to experience a book - just your mind, enough light to read by and you're off.

William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight. Continues the author's examination of the various manifestations of Islam in America. In this book he looks at those members of the Beat movement of the 1950s who claim to have embraced Islam and tries to find ways in which he can relate to them. Another fine work of scholarly introspection on the nature of faith and religion and the history of Islam in America.

Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith. Smith is irreverent, rude, crude and probably offensive to any number of people. However, he also has more to intelligent things to say about the nature of art and what it takes to be an artist than any of his contemporaries. Scatological and brilliant in equal measures.

Throne Of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. For those who are tired of lily white fantasy heroes and swarthy villains battling in worlds based on Western myths this book will be a wonderful tonic. A great story filled with wonderful characters set in a world filled with djinn and other beings from Middle Eastern/Northern Africa mythology. First book in what promises to be a great series

The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. A wonderful anthology of quirky, sometimes scary and often funny tales about how the fae are getting by in the modern world. Whether a transgendered werewolf living in the East Village in New York City or the Unseelie Court running a chain of discount department stores (putting a glamour on their "greeters" so they can get through a shift without killing anyone) they're doing their best to blend but not always with the greatest of success.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America by Thomas King. It's the land stupid. Not really a history of Native people, more a history of what's happened since Europeans came to North America. They wanted land and had to figure out what to do about all those people who were already inconveniently living on it. King recounts the various methods used to separate the indigenous population of North America from their land. From massacres to removal the policies may have changed over the years, but the goal still remains the same today - get those Indians off the land they aren't putting to "proper" use.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore. The art world will never be the same. One of Moore's best books in years is set in Paris during the late 19th century. The impressionist movement is taking the art world by storm, and its various artists are being targeted by the mysterious colour man and his beautiful accomplice. This wonderfully wise and comic tale is part mystery and part exploration of the nature of art. Populated by a mixture of fictional and some colourful characters from art history Moore's latest shows why he is one of best comic writers of his generation.

Forge Of Darkness by Steven Erikson. What do you do for an encore after writing a brilliant ten book epic fantasy series? Why start writing a new series set in the first one's pre-history of course. After bringing The Malazan Book Of The Fallen to a successful conclusion, Erikson hasn't wasted any time in finding new aspects of the universe he co-created to life. Equal parts fascinating and frightening, readers of the previous series will run into some familiar characters, but in totally new circumstances as he delves into the history of the enigmatic Tiste Andi, worshippers of Mother Dark. Another brilliant piece of world building from this master story teller - Erikson is the gold standard against which all fantasy work should be measured against in the future.

Except The Queen by Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen. The number of women writing fantasy seems to be few and far between these days. (I don't count the romance novels with vampires and werewolves they call paranormal romance as fantasy - Harlequin with fangs doesn't fantasy make) Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen have always been two of the best and this latest co-authored offering shows why. Not only do they have splendid imaginations they can also weave a wonderful web mixing the exotic and the mundane. Their talents are on full display here as they tear the fabric between our world and fairy allowing them to intermingle with startling results.

Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont. While Steven Erikson delves into the past, Ian Esslemont continues to recount events occurring during the time of the Malazan Empire in the world they created together. Here Esslemont takes us to a part of the world which up until now has been shrouded in mystery. A dark and dangerous continent ruled by strange magic and haunted by a cataclysmic past is the sight of a convergence of a variety of forces. Will history repeat itself or can those involved manage to find what they're looking for without destroying themselves and the continent in the process. A great adventure filled with characters who will both frighten and delight you.

The Art Book: New Edition by Various Editors. One of the great pities about North American society is how we've managed to make the fine arts inaccessible to the majority of the population. What great works of art we have are stashed away in galleries which seem more designed to intimidate than welcome most people. Even when collected into books they are out of most people's reach due to cost. The Art Book: New Edition not only provides readers with the chance to see quality reproductions of great works of art at a remarkably affordable price, it does so in a far less intimidating manner than any other collection of its kind. While art historians might be put off by the work being arranged in alphabetical order according to artist's name, the rest of us can revel in the joy of seeing examples of modern and medieval art side by side. With each piece accompanied by a short explanatory note explaining the significance of the work, this book serves as a great introduction to the wonders of the visual arts.

(Article first published as My Ten Favorite Reads Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

August 3, 2012

Book Review: Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos by Simon Tofield


If you've ever owned a kitten or a puppy you'll understand how these small bundles of fur can completely dominate a household. Kittens look so helpless, spindly legs and covered in fuzz, yet somehow they manage to be far more destructive than most animals ten times their size. In the latest instalment of his ongoing series of cartoons about the "joys" of living with a cat, Simon Tofield has added one of those little bundles of energetic mayhem into his mix of characters. The results, Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos, published by Canongate Books and distributed by Penguin Canada, are hysterical - in all senses of the word.

Simon's Cat began life as a hand drawn animated cartoon posted to YouTube by Tofield. Something about the first one struck a chord with cat owners because it and the videos that followed attracted millions of hits from all over the world. I think part of their appeal is how low tech they are. Black and white pencil drawings brought to life and sound effects made by Tofield are not what anyone would call sophisticated. However what they lack in special effects is more than compensated for by their ability to capture and bring to life those aspects of a cat's behaviour which most endear/enrage anyone who has ever lived with one. From the vocal mannerisms to the physical reactions you can't help but recognize something of your own cat in Simon's Cat. The popularity of the videos led Tofield to publish two collections of still cartoons, Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence which were as funny as the videos.
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In this latest instalment, as the title implies, he introduces a new member of the family in the form of a kitten rescued from the rain. While there are some funny scenes of the established adult cat working to teach the interloper her/his place (not only do neither of the cats have a name they are both gender neutral - although there is a scene in this book where the kitten is going off to the vet and makes the universal sign for scissors to the older cat who looks suitably repulsed) the best images are of the kitten on its own discovering its new world. Tofield gives us both a series of small sketches ranging from kitten with toilet paper to kitten sleeping on stairs laid out across the page and full page drawings of the little one in its new surroundings. What's really quite wonderful is how we see everything from the kitten's perspective. Everything is drawn proportionate to the small cat's size and as if being seen from a place far closer to the floor than you or I normally view the world.

Anyone knowing the original cat won't be surprised that a lot of the early tensions between the two cats revolve around food. One of the only anthropomorphic traits it possesses is to open its mouth and point out how empty it happens to be whenever it manages to catch its owner's attention. Naturally there are endless battles over food and food bowls. These are handled with ease and good humour by Tofield, but he doesn't ignore the very real problem faced when introducing a kitten into an established cat's territory. How do you ensure the new kitten is receiving its fair share of the food? Do you stand guard, or do you trust the little one to figure out ways of eating enough.

When a couple is expecting the birth of a new child they are told to "baby proof" their home to reduce the risk of it injuring itself. The reality is that there's really no need for that until the infant is able to move around on its own so you can count on having a year after the child's born in which to make your preparations. Not so with a kitten. From the moment it enters into your house you have to start kitten proofing. Otherwise you'll find CDs on the floor, items safely stored on counter tops scattered and shattered, and various valuable items shredded, disced, dissected, digested and then regurgitated around the house. It's amazing the damage a kitten can inflict once it puts its mind to it. Of course if they have an adult cat blundering along in their wake the damage becomes even more extensive as places kittens can squeeze through without disturbing anything don't seem to handle the wider girth of the adult.
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What made the earlier books so appealing to cat owners was Tofield's ability to recreate cat behaviour with just the right amount of exaggeration to make it funny without making it unbelievable. Unlike other cartoon cats who are given human attributes in an attempt to make them appealing, Tofield understands that the animal's behaviour is enough to create a bond between the reader and the characters. Not only does he continue to adhere to that principle in this book, he adds an additional layer by capturing a kitten's behaviour patterns, and an adult's reactions to them, beautifully.

One thing readers will notice is how the art work in this book is much more elaborate then in the earlier volumes. Everything is still rendered in black and white, but the drawings are much more detailed. From the interior shots showing the variety of things that a kitten can become entangled in to the later drawings when we see it discovering the world of the backyard, there is a lot more going on in this world then in previous books. Of course no matter how detailed the drawings are, the cats are still the centre of the universe and we still see everything either in relation to them or from their point of view.

While the emphasis is of course on the humorous escapades the cats get up to at the expense of their human, Tofield finishes the book by reminding us the relationship between cat and person is not a one way street. For when their human is taken to bed with a miserable cold both cats are seen first looking up at the bed from the floor, then curled up on the bed with him. As anybody who has ever been taken ill and felt especially unhappy knows, having one's four legged companion keeping you company makes a world of difference. They might be holy terrors much of the time, but the pay back makes it more than worth while.

Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos is a welcome addition to the Simon's Cat family of books. What makes these books so special is Tofield's ability to capture moments that are instantly recognizable to anybody who has ever owned a cat. He doesn't stoop to making the animals overly cute or giving them human characteristics, making them both more realistic, and funnier, than almost any other cartoon cat. If you own a cat you'll want to own these books. If you're thinking of purchasing a kitten, reading the latest will remind you, or if you've never owned one before, warn you, of what you're letting yourself in for.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos by Simon Tolfield on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2012

Book Review: Simon's Cat: Feed Me By Simon Tofield


There have been plenty of cartoon cats who have come gone over the years, and to be honest none of them have ever really appealed to me. Maybe it's because I own and like cats, I find most of the caricatures lacking. For instead of trusting in the natural appeal of the animal most of them have been given human attributes which might make them cute for some, but just makes them unappealing to me. So when someone first sent me a link to Simon Tofield's Simon's Cat it took me a while to even bother checking it out. Well, as anyone who has seen these videos knows Tofield took the opposite tact, with his cat barely beening anthropomorphized at all.

The live action cartoons are simple, black and white, sketch like drawings. Nothing high tech about them. In fact there's not even and dialogue, or at least any in human language. Simon's Cat, he doesn't appear to have any other name, communicates in a series of sounds and noises which will be familiar to any cat owner. From the inquisitive chirps he makes when faced with a puzzle all the way through to the contented purr of the well fed animal. Somehow, with just this basic vocabulary, and an understanding of cat body language, Tofield has managed to instil his creation with the just the right combination of elements that its behaviour strikes chords of recognition with his viewers. I'm sure every cat owner watching has at one time or another said a variation on, "That's just like my cat", at some time or another.
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How though would the cat make the transition to the printed page? What works with an audio track and animation won't necessarily in the less kinetic media. But at those who have read Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence will know he's just as, if not more, appealing in print as he is on the screen. Up until now the books like the cartoons have been in black in and white. However that's all going to change with the release of Simon's Cat: Feed Me, a Canongate UK publication distributed by the Independent Publishers Group (IPG).

For Simon's Cat and his environment are in colour for the first time. To be honest I had worried that he might not be able to stand up to the transition. Part of the cartoon's charm has been its simplicity. In some instances the cat appears alone on the page, no settings aside from him and the object of his attention. Whether it be a piece of tape attached to his paw and his struggles to remove it, his turning of an empty box into an adventure or his continual and relentless attempts at filling his food bowl, it had always been the cat at the centre of our attention. But colour could ruin that, as colour might well demand a more fleshed out world forcing Tolfield to draw what had been left to our imaginations and reduce the cat to nothing more than just another object in a world full of clutter.

Thankfully this isn't the case. As in the previous books in those instances where Tolfield fills in the world around the cat, he always does so in close up. Even when he's out in the wilds the focus is tight to the immediate surroundings keeping our attention solely on the centre of this world's universe - the cat. As the title of this book suggests all of the cartoons revolve around its lead's endless pursuit of food. Or rather obsession with being fed. In the original animated cartoons no matter what mayhem the cat might have caused, the action would invariably end with him sitting, pointing to his open mouth making pleading noises even the stupidest of humans couldn't fail to recognize as a demand to be fed.

We are witness to Simon's Cat resorting to an impressive array of attempted deceptions and ploys in his attempts to squeeze some extra food from a harsh world. From disguising himself as a bird house, with his mouth as the entrance, in the hopes a bird will fly in to sitting under a cow and pulling on its tail in the hopes this will activate the udders under which he's urgently waiting with gaping mouth. Then there are his efforts to have other animals feed him, even going so far as begging a heron for its fish or pretending to be a fox kit in order to get a share of the kill a mother brings home for its brood. His disguises are always ridiculously easy to see through and part of the fun are the expressions of incredulity on the other animal's faces upon catching site of the interloper. It's as if they can't believe anyone can be that stupid as to fall for a cat's tricks.
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While the animal kingdom might not fall for his ploys, the same can't be said for humans. While there are plenty of scenes of the cat rummaging in cupboards ripping open boxes, or stealing food from his human's plate, there are enough showing the cat falling victim to his own excesses we don't begin to hate him. For every slapstick image of the human tripping over the purring cat, spilling his coffee when his leg is used as a scratching post, the cat also gets his comeuppance. We've all seen a cat do its happy dance with its front paws, usually when it beds down in a comfortable place - like your stomach or other sensitive body parts. Well in this case the cat goes into his happy dance around his full food bowl only to take it a step too far and catch the edge of his dish and end up wearing his meal.

The success of Simon's Cat lies in the cartoon's ability to capture those characteristics of the animal immediately recognizable to any cat owner. Everyone who has ever owned a cat will at some point in watching, or reading, them say - that's exactly like (insert the name of your cat here). In transferring the series from animated cartoon to book instead of trying to fit it into a conventional comic strip format to tell the story, Tolfield elects to go with a more free form style. We either are treated to a moment in time caught on the page and left to figure out what's going on - cat sitting on floor, man throwing coffee cup at ceiling with expression of pained surprise on face and lower leg of pyjamas showing definite signs of claw marks tells its own story - or given a series of images that our eye follows around the page like stop action animation.

Simon Tofield's Simon's Cat works so well because the cat in question is not cute, has few if any human characteristics or motivations, and is saved from being a complete pain in the ass by occasionally ending up the victim of its own plots. I doubt the series will appeal to dog lovers, but if you've ever owned a cat, whether you liked it or not, you can't help but be impressed at how well it captures the domestic cat in all its glory. If you enjoyed the cartoons on the internet and the previous books of black and white drawings, then you won't be able to resist Simon's Cat in colour.
(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: Feed Me by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited By Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray


You can find them in almost every culture around the world; stories about the little people. Creatures from a different realm but who happen to share the world with us. Sometimes they are portrayed as evil, other times as good and sometimes simply indifferent to the wishes and wants of humans. They are described as either being inhumanly beautiful or unspeakably horrific, but either way we've always been in their thrall. Among people of European descent they are known as the Fae, or Fairy, and they've appeared in everything from nursery rhymes to the plays of Shakespeare.

It was in the Victorian era, the 1800s, that we first started to turn them into the cartoon figures they've become today. Instead of the wild folk who lurked in the woods they became darling little creatures with gossamer wings who lived in flower gardens or who sprinkled fairy dust on you to make you fly. This set the stage for the fairies that most of us know today thanks to Tinkerbell and her ilk. Creatures who have as little to do with the Fae, the Unseelie Court and all the other beings who live under the hill, in the deepest parts of the forest or on abandoned moors shrouded in mist. Fortunately the tide is starting to turn again and beginning in the late twentieth century fantasy writers have been mining the older tales for their inspiration. As a result we're beginning to see stories depicting the Fae as they appeared for thousands of years.
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Not content with merely resurrecting old tales, this is especially true of the relatively new genre of urban fantasy, authors are bringing the Fae into modern times. While this has resulted in some interesting and fascinating stories, it has also posed the question of how have these creatures of magic and imagination managed to adopt to life in the twenty-first century. So many of the wild places they used to live have disappeared and you can barely move without running into something made from iron. Well a new anthology of stories, The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity published by Penguin Canada and edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray being published on March 6 2012, shows just how inventive the Fae have been in dealing with the modern world.

The premise the editors gave those they approached about contributing to the anthology was a simple one. What if the Fae still existed in the modern world? The answers they received from fourteen authors were as diverse as the mythical creatures the stories were about. However the stories can be broken down into three distinct categories. Those in which the Fae try to "pass" or blend in with the human world, ones where the two worlds share an uneasy co-existence and ones where the Fae are still living as they used to and trying to carry on as they did in simpler, less technological times. However no matter which approach the authors have chosen to take, they have all taken remarkable pains to make the stories as true to the original tales of the beings described in their versions as possible.

As a result all of the stories, from the comic to the dark, not only capture the magic and mystery of the Fae but very realistically describe how they could overcome the challenges facing them in order to survive in the twenty-first century. Whether it's running Undermart, a WallMart type discount store, in an attempt to increase the proliferation of plastic products to and keep the Tuatha de Danann in M&Ms in "We Will Not Be Undersold" by Seanan McGuire (a fairy glamour sure explains why store greeters are able to smile all the time without killing customers), working as motivational speakers convincing people that meaningless platitudes will change their lives in "How To Be Human TM" by Barbara Ashford, or using an off the beaten track MBA program to head hunt for humans looking to change their lives in "Continuing Education" by Kristine Smith, we see those Fae who put their minds to it can assimilate quite nicely. Oh sure they occasionally get caught out, but all in all if you had to work as a greeter in chain discount store wouldn't you prefer the option of having your brain shut off for the duration of your shift?

Those who try to carry on as they did in the old days have a slightly harder time of it. Although they might be able to get away with some stuff, like scooping up changelings in "Changeling" by Susan Jett and "A People Who Always Know" by Shannon Page and Jay Lake because most people don't believe in fairies anymore, it's not always easy for the more traditionally minded. Take poor Green Jenny who used to lure hapless humans into swamps where she would feed on their life force. As we find out in "Water Called" by Kari Sperring, if the draining of marshes and building of canals to confine waters hasn't reduced her source of food badly enough, people carrying out experiments on the drunks and down and outers who normally fall into her embrace, are making it extremely difficult for her to get by. Or as the dryads in "The Roots Of Aston Quercus" by Juliet E. McKenna discover, they have to adapt somewhat in order to save their grove of trees from being cut down for a new bypass.

However if you think they've got it hard, imagine being a transgendered werewolf like Edie in "The Slaughtered Lamb" by Elizabeth Bear. With the human and Fae worlds coexisting peacefully she chose to live among humans because of the Pack's rigid rules on sexual identity. Anyway shapeshifting is hard on a girl - shaving your legs is a nightmare after you've taken on wolf form. It also loses some of its impact on others when you require a the help of a dresser before you can make the shift - you try removing a gaff by yourself. Still, anybody who tries to get rough with this girl is in for a nasty surprise.

Sometimes the quality of stories in these types of anthologies is quite frankly uneven. Far too many of them seem to rely on one or two stories by a name writer and then fill in the rest with what is quite frankly padding. However in this case I had only vaguely heard of one or two of the contributing authors and all of the stories were equally captivating. The editors have also done a good job in selecting stories that represent a cross section of the various types of fantasy story on offer today. Fae of all shapes, sizes and character are represented from those just seeking to get by, those interested in making a little mischief and those whose intentions are not what anybody would call friendly. The Fae have always had an uneasy relationship with mortals. Whether it's our use of iron which is poison to them or how the more callous of them look upon us as playthings to be discarded when we grow too tedious. However, as this collection makes clear, the world would be a lot less interesting a place if they didn't exist, and it's good to see they've found so many ways of getting by even in these complicated times.
Article first published as Book Review: The Modern Fae's Guide to Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray on Blogcritics.)

April 11, 2012

Book Review: Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore


The hardest thing for an author is to live up the expectations created by writing an original and inventive first novel. Readers can't help comparing each subsequent effort to first one. An author faces the choice of trying to either please their audience by repeating what they did or trusting in their abilities as a writer and going off in whatever direction their muse takes them. Sometimes those who follow the former path are able to repeat their success for a while, but eventually their writing becomes formulaic and stale. The author who risks the latter course may not have the same initial repeat success, but their work ends up standing the test of time far better as its constantly evolving.

Christopher Moore has followed both courses of action. On those occasions where he seems to fall back on the tried and true methods that made him popular, his books, while still better than most of what comes on the market, start to sound the same. Like hearing an old joke with the characters and situation changed, it might be funny but you have the strongest feeling you've heard it before and the punchline is never a surprise. However, he's also capable of creating works of near comic genius which tackle subjects others shy away from. Sacré Bleu, published by HarperCollins Canada April 3 2012 is Christopher Moore at his best and will remind you why he is considered one of the funniest and insightful authors of our time.

Set in Paris France in the mid to late1800s and featuring a cast of characters who read like a who's who of the Impressionist art movement, Sacré Bleu is part mystery, part fantasy, part historical fiction and entirely riveting. Underneath the obvious humour and Moore's familiar breezy narrative style is hidden one of the more interesting examinations of the relationship between an artist and his art - or as some would have it - their muse. What wouldn't an artist give to paint that picture he's always dreamed of painting? The painting that he can see in his mind's eye but somehow has never been able to make its way onto the canvas. What would he be willing to sacrifice for his art?
Cover Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore.jpg
The late 1800s were a time of enormous upheaval in the artistic community. Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec along with many others were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable art in both form and subject matter. Those who doubt the veracity of their work only need to spend some time in Paris in the summer and compare what they see with the paintings from that period. It's still amazing to see how with just light and colour they were able to capture the effects of August's heat on the city.

Although they are now considered establishment, at the time they were outsiders with most of them barely able to eke out an existence. Living in penury their only satisfaction came from their creations. A key element in the success of any painter's work is of course the quality of his paints. The purer the pigment used in making the colour, the more vivid and real the colour. In those days the purest colours were still being made by grinding up various minerals and mixing the resulting powder with oil. The rarest of these was "Sacré Bleu", the blue of the cloak of the Virgin Mary, made of ground up Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli only being available in Afghanistan meant the stone and paint were usually too expensive for painters struggling to get by. So if they offered a blue, "ultramarine" pigment guaranteed to be better than Sacré Bleu, to try, they would do so no questions asked.

Pure pigments to a painter are like heroin to a junkie. Once they get a taste they can't get enough. So it is with everyone of the painters who come in contact with the mysterious Colourman and his "ultramarine" blue. The main difference between their supplier and most pushers is the price that he exacts from his clients. Instead of cash he demands paintings made with his fantastic blue in exchange for his product. However he never exacts his price in person as each artist who uses his blue also manages to acquire a new model of extraordinary beauty who inspires their best work as well as becoming their supplier of their drug of choice.

As the model takes on a different form for each painter nobody even thinks to make the connection between the paint, the Colourman and the model until the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh in rural Arles rouses suspicions among his painter friends back home in Paris. Just prior to his death he wrote Touluse-Lautrec that he dared not use his blue paint except at night and that everyone should beware a small wizened man accompanied by a donkey selling paints.

Led by Toulouse-Lautrec the painters of Paris start to put the pieces of the mystery surrounding The Colourman, his amazing blue paint and the mysterious model together. When the young baker with dreams of painting named Lucien Lessard's mysterious lover Juliette returns after a unexplained two year absence the picture really starts to come into focus. Lessard obsession with his lover and the portrait he is painting of her causes him to neglect his responsibilities at the family bakery and stops eating and sleeping. It's only when his mother knocks out Juliette with a crepe pan that his friends and family are able to drag him away from her. For nine days he lies in what appears to be a coma. When he finally awakes all he can think of are the painting he has created and finding his Juliette again.
Christopher Moore.jpg
Lautrec had undergone a similar experience with a model a number of years ago and had only survived because his friends, including Lessard, had kidnapped him and sent him away from Paris. It turns out that each of their Impressionist friends has at one point in time had one model in particular whom they have obsessed over and who has featured in their most famous works.In each of these works, no matter what the subject matter, the now infamous ultramarine blue has been used. Even more mysterious is the fact while their friends have distinct memories of them having painted a whole series of canvasses involving the mysterious model, none of the painters can either remember painting them or has any idea of where they can have gone to. However, each of them can remember when the model left them, as her disappearance always coincided with a personal misfortune. One painter's beloved daughter died and another lost his wife. Whatever the case, there was always a price to be paid for producing their great works of art.

Moore's depictions of real historical figures are based on accounts of the people in question written while they were alive. So while some the characteristics he ascribes to them in the story might not be accurate a good deal of their activities described in the book actually happened. (In an afterward to the book Moore supplies the reader with details of his sources) Moore always tends towards affectionate irreverence with his characters, depicting them warts and all, but loving them because of their flaws. So while he may overemphasize things like Lautrec's drinking, his affection for prostitutes and some of his other affectations, it's never with malice and does nothing to diminish or demean the painter. In fact, by removing famous figures from the pedestals history has put them on and humanizing them their accomplishments as artists become even more amazing.

Against this backdrop of artistic genius two mysteries gradually unfold. The more traditional involves the Colourman and the strange hold his ultramarine blue paint has over artists and his relationship with the mysterious model. How can one woman have been so different for each artist who has painted her? How could she have been exactly what each painter needed to inspire his greatest work? These questions lead the reader directly into the second mystery at play - the mystery of inspiration. There is nothing more frustrating than asking an artist where their inspiration for a work came from, because nine times out of ten they aren't able to answer. The best you're likely to receive is, "it just came to me". On top of that, why do artists become so obsessed with their work to the point they will forget about everything else including eating and sleeping?

In classical mythology the answer was the muses, the most famous of whom was the goddess Eros. They supposedly provided artists with the desire and passion to create. Is the mysterious Juliette really the muse of legend as she claims? Has she really been so many different women to so many different painters and inspired them to so much great work? If she has, why does she do it? What's in it for her and why do all the painters she inspires have to suffer? Moore gives us the answer to the mystery of The Colourman and ultramarine, but as to the question of inspiration and muses, well that still remains a mystery. Oh, Juliette supplies something akin to an answer, but it doesn't really answer any of the questions.

Any of us who have ever had any artistic aspirations of any kind have at one time or another probably had romantic dreams of living in Paris. These dreams are based upon a Paris that existed from around 1860 until the start of WW ll. What would it have been like to drink absinth with Lautrec, smoke opium with Cocteau or share a coffee in a cafe with Joyce? In Sacré Bleu Christopher Moore captures both the spirit of artistic creation that captivates us and the price paid by those who actually lived it. Beneath the surface of what is primarily a lighthearted mystery story he gives us very real glimpses of what's exacted from those who dedicate themselves to the capriciousness of art. This is Christopher Moore at his best, underneath the laughter lies the truth the clown usually covers with a greasepaint smile.

(Article first published as Book Review: Sacré Bleu By Christopher Moore on Blogcritics.)

October 15, 2011

Interview: Robert Crumb - Illustrator and Musician

Robert Crumb is probably best known from his career as a comic book artist, specifically from the world of underground comics in the United States in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. Characters such as Mr, Natural have assured Crumb's name will endure amongst comic fans for years to come. However, talent like his does not pass unnoticed and his work has graced more than just the pages of comic books. Aside from illustrating Crumb has another passion, early twentieth century popular music. Over the course of his career drawing comics he has also been steadily amassing a portfolio of music related art work. He's designed everything from record covers to business cards and letter head for small companies to promotional material for concerts and record stores.

However he's not limited his passion for music to just illustrations and is not only an avid collector of old 78 RPM records of his preferred music, he has also become an accomplished musician in his own right. Most recently he lent his talents as a mandolin player to the Eden and John's East River String Band recording Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, but he's been playing music since his days as leader of the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the late 1970s. While some of that music is readily available the same can't be said for his music related illustrations. However that's all about to change with the forthcoming release of The Complete Record Cover Collection from Norton Books in November of 2011.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
I had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to put some questions to Mr. Crumb regarding this new book and the music that inspired it. I forwarded my questions for him by email, and what you're about to read are his answers exactly as he wrote them. A fascinating man with an amazing talent, hopefully the following interview will provide you some insight into how his passion for music developed and how that translated into his artwork. I'd just like to thank Robert Weil at Norton Books for setting the interview up and Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer them. Enjoy.

1) When did you first discover music? What was it about the music you heard that captivated you?

 When did I first discover music?  I first discovered music on April 23rd, 1947.  No, just kidding.  I don’t think people “discover” music, as there is always some kind of music around from the time we are born.  We just become gradually more aware of it as we grow.  In the modern world with its pervasive mass media, the first music most of us become aware of, aside perhaps from nursery songs, is mass-produced popular music.  I remember as a kid in the late 1940s -- early ‘50s hearing the popular music of the time coming from radios.  I recall that it had a mildly depressing affect on me... Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Thersa Brewer.  There was something unspeakably awful and dreary about this pop music of the time.  In general I have had a loathing for popular music all my life, except for the period of early rock and roll; 1955-1966.  I liked some of that music, and still do.  I really lost interest after about 1970.

The first music that really “captivated” me was film and cartoon sound track music from the early days of the “talkies,” the early 1930s, which I was exposed to from watching television in the 1950s.  Early Hal Roach comedy shorts such as “The Little Rascals” and Laurel and Hardy were shown over and over again, and the background music in these reached deep into me, I’m not sure why.  Much later -- decades later -- I learned that these great bits of background music in the Hal Roach comedies were all composed by an unassuming, behind-the-scenes music business man named Leroy Shield; he is still relatively unknown and forgotten.

Then at age 16 I discovered that this kind of music could be found on old 78 rpm records of the 1920s and ‘30s.  That was a great revelation, and from then on I became an obsessive collector of old records.  At first my main interest was the old dance orchestras and jazz bands that sounded like the music in old movies and Hal Roach comedies, but then I started listening to old blues 78s that I found.  They sounded strange and exotic to me at first, but I grew to love this music  -- blues of the 1920s -- early ‘30s.  Then I discoverd old-time country music.  Again, at first it sounded crude, rough, but this music, too, I grew to love.  From there I went on to find that old Ukrainian and Polish polka bands of this same period -- 1920s - early ‘30s -- were also great, and then I found old Irish records -- wonderful stuff -- Greek records, Mexican, Carribean, on and on. Over here, living in Europe, I found great old French music, Arab/North African music, sub-saharan, black African music, Armenian and Turkish music, even Hindou Indian music, on the old pre WW II 78s.  So now, you can imagine, I have a pretty big collection of these old discs -- 6,500 of them, more or less, an embarrassment of musical riches.

2) Illustration became your first primary means of expression, not music, what held you back from pursuing a career as a musician?

From an early age I had a strong desire to play music but there was no one in my immediate environment to show me anything.  My parents had no interest in music beyond listening to pop radio.  I started on my own at age 12 with a plastic ukulele, and a pamphlet showing how to tune the thing and some chord positions.  Ironically, my mother’s father had been a musician, playing string instruments -- banjo, mandolin, guitar -- but he died when I was only a year old.  None of his children showed any interest in learning to play music.

As with comics and cartoons, I learned to play music just by working at it on my own, with no formal lessons. But I did not possess a “real” instrument til I was in my late 20s.  It was not until then that I finally met others my age who liked and played the same kind of music as me.  I have always enjoyed playing music but never particularly enjoyed performing in public.  though I did play many gigs with various bands, I never got over feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious in front of an audience.  A career in music did not interest me.  I already had a “career” as a cartoonisht/artist, anyway.  Plus, there really is no such thing as a career in the kind of music I like to play.   You gotta have a regular job and play old-time music on the side, for the pleasure of it.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
3) Aside from those illustrations directly related to music, album covers, promotional materials etc. what if any influences did the music you love have on your art work?

None that I can perceive. 

4) Your first commission for an album cover was, I believe, for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. How did that come about?

In 1968 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. ZAP Comix had already come out and I was beginning to be well-known in the hippy subculture.  I was approached by someone in the “Big Brother” band to do the album cover.  I was not crazy about their music but I needed the money.  We (my wife Dana and I and our son Jesse) were living on public assistance, or welfare, at the time.  Columbia Records offered $600 for doing the cover.  That was big money to me at the time.  Actually, I was drafted at the last moment, as the band was not happy with the cover produced by the record company.  I had to “pull an all-nighter” to get it done.  I took some amphetamines and cranked it out.  I remember finishing the work as the sun was coming up over the house tops outside my window.  You can do that kind of thing when you’re 25.


5)  Did you start actively seeking out gigs doing album covers after that, or did you think of it as a one off deal at the time? 

I’d given up on being a commercial artist by 1968, and had found to my complete amazement that I could do my own crazy comics and get them published in the hippy so-called “underground” press.  There was little or no money in it, but who cared?  It was TOTAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION in my chosen medium -- print!  It was the hippy era, man, survival was “transcendental.”  We didn’t worry too much about money.  That came later, when my work actually started to MAKE money, then there were lots of money problems, I was buried under money problems by the mid-1970s.  But that’s another story.

The only other album cover work that interested me much was making covers for reissues of the old music from 78s that I loved, and that I usually did in exchange for -- guess what? -- 78s!  I’m still doing this today.

6) The majority of your album covers appear to reflect your taste in music - old time country, traditional jazz and acoustic blues. Were there gigs you turned down because they weren't from one of those genres and if so why? What is it about that type of music that attracts you more than others?

I’ve turned down a few offers to do album covers for rock bands -- not much.  I don’t need the money, I hate the music -- Why do it?

What is it that attracts me to old time music of the 1920s and ‘30s?  I don’t know.  I could go on about how the older music sounds more authentic, less contrived, more home-made, etc.  But I’m not sure that really explains it.  Some kind of neurological fixation  I don’t know.  Who can explain these things?  You tell me, why do you like what you like?
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
7) What's your process for creating the cover art for an album? For Eden and John's East River String Band's most recent recording, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, you created an image based around the disc's title featuring the musicians playing in the disc, but what other attributes influence you?

Creative processes are a hard thing to talk about, and there are so many different processes or approaches.  For instance, in the case of Eden and John’s East River String Band, the idea for the cover was suggested by them.  I liked their idea and used it.

8) You were one of the musicians on that album, mandolin. When did you start playing and performing music? Why a mandolin? 

I “graduated” from the ukulele in my 20s to the tenor banjo.  For many years, I just banged out chords on the banjo, then I branched out into the guitar and the mandolin, in my ‘30s.  I’ve also fooled around on piano and accordion.  I tried the fiddle for a while, but gave up on it as it sounds pretty awful until you get good at it, after a lot of practice. Now I think I should have stuck with it.  By now I’d probably be at least serviceable on it, if I’d persisted.  I’d be able to get through, you know, “Home Sweet Home” or “Oh Suzanna,” stuff like that.  That’s about my speed anyway.  I never achieved virtuosity on any instrument, plus, I play string instruments backwards, left-handed, which is a serious handicap, although it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix.

“Why a mandolin,” you ask.  Why not a mandolin?  Okay, yeah, by now it’s like, an antique instrument, right?  One reason I took up the mandolin is that it’s a very easy instrument to learn, much easier than either the fiddle or the guitar.  I gave up on the fiddle and took up the mandolin.  You can play something resembling music pretty quickly, with only a little practice, on the mandolin  That’s why back in the golden age of string instruments, the 1890s - 1920s, there were mandolin clubs all over the place.  These clubs were full of ordinary people, lots of young people, kids, teenagers, as well as older people.  There were also banjo clubs.  They’d play together in huge ensembles, just for the pleasure.  Electronic media killed all this;  radio, movies, jukeboxes, then television.  Television delivered the coup de grace to widespread, grass-roots, self-made recreations.  They just sat and viewed, they were hypnotized... zombies... They watched anything that was on... It held them spellbound.  That was another thing the hippies sort of rebelled against... for awhile at least... But the media is now more powerful than ever.  We’re hooked... There’s no escape... It’s changed, though... Now it’s, you know, “interactive”...

9) What similarities and differences have you found in your creative process as a musician and as an illustrator?

Music and drawing pictures and writing... totally different things... I would not call myself a “creative” musician.  I don’t compose my own music, I don’t do fancy improvisations on my instrument.  When playing, I’m happy if I can play a tune smoothly, rhythmically, bringing out whatever beauty is in the melody itself... That’s enough for me.  I’m not trying to “kick ass” when I play music, or anything like that.  The drawing is something else again.

10) Among the illustrations included in the new book, R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection are a series of portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians of the past. Some of them are taken from packages of cards you created. Where did the idea for these collectibles come from and were you able to choose who you included in each series? If yes to the latter what criteria was used for selecting who was to be included in each set?

I was inspired by the old baseball bubblegum cards to make those musician cards.  Yes, I chose the performers, the categories, everything.  I was looking for some way to pay tribute and to evangelize for this music that I loved, music that was so buried under the avalanche of later popular music.  Some of those musicians or groups that I drew have never even been commercially reissued since the original 78 was made back in the ‘20s.  Mumford Bean and his Itawambians, for instance.  Are they obscure enough for you?  They made one 78 in 1928, two sides.  Never reissued.  That’s how fanatic I am.  The French accordion players are even more absurdly esoteric.  Those didn’t even sell well in France.  Nobody’d ever heard of them!

11) Of all the music related illustrations you've created are there any in particular that stand out and why?

No, not really.

Once again I'd like to thank Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview. If you're unfamiliar with his artwork check out his web site. You'll soon see why he's fascinated people for ages with his work. If that whets your appetite for more, or if you're already a fan, then your sure to enjoy the work on display in The Complete Record Cover Collection when it hits the shelves some time in November.
(Article first published as Interview: Illustrator and Musician Robert Crumb, Author of The Complete Record Cover Collection on Blogcritics.)

June 16, 2011

Audio Book Review: Go The Fuck To Sleep by Adam Mansbach Read by Samuel L. Jackson

It's not often that a book for very young children will cause such a sensation that even before it is released it has best seller written all over it. Of course the secret to any book's success is its ability to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and while there have been a few young adult books that have managed that trick it hardly seems possible that a bed time story for children could have the same luck. However, Adam Mansbach's newest title, Go The Fuck To Sleep published by Akashic Books on June 14 2011 is being snapped up all over the English speaking world.
Cover Go To Fucking Sleep.jpg
As you can tell by its title Go The Fuck To Sleep isn't your typical bedtime story. In fact this isn't a book most parents are going to be reading aloud at night to their children, yet that hasn't stopped them from snatching up copies anyway. Of course sales haven't been hurt by the fact the audio book version is being read by Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who first gained renown for his portrayal of street smart, and usually foul mouthed, characters. Even before the book had been released recordings of Jackson reading the book had gone viral all over the Internet, including recordings like the one below taken from a radio interview.
[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]
Anybody who has ever tried to convince a young child of the necessity for them to go to bed and fall asleep is going to be able to identify with the parent in this story's attempts to convince his young child to "go the fuck to sleep". Right from the opening stanza you know this is not your typical bed time nursery rhyme. For even though each of the opening few verses begin with delightful images of the world settling down for the night, each ends with the same plaintive request for the toddler to "go the fuck to sleep". As we progress through the poem the poor parent is presented with everyone of the typical child's stalling efforts; from I need a drink of water to I have to go the bathroom; and with each his "go the fuck to sleep" becomes more and more insistent and desperate. Of course, just when he thinks it's safe for him and his wife to settle down with a movie for the night, for a little time to themselves, their reverie is shattered resulting in one final desperate plea to their darling bundle of joy.

Adam Mansbach.jpg
Now I'm sure there are going to be plenty of you out there shocked at the idea of anybody telling their child to "go the fuck to sleep". It's mean, abusive and sends out all the wrong messages for this day and age. Everybody from the religious right to dishrag liberals are bound to find this offensive and just plain wrong. Well I hate to tell you this, but letting parents know its perfectly understandable they're going to occasionally lose patience with their darling bundles of joy, that once in a while it will all become too much for them, is going to do more to reduce the incidence of child abuse than anything else. Knowing you're not alone in being frustrated by your inability to induce order on a two year old will do wonders for a person's morale and make them feel like less of a failure as a parent.

Picture some poor single mother or working poor couple who come home at the end of the day after working some awful job in order to try and feed, shelter and clothe their child. No matter what anybody says there is bound to be some small kernel of resentment buried deep inside them over what they have to do to make sure this small person survives. How much closer to the surface will that come if at the end of the day when all they want to do is relax and maybe recapture some of what it was that brought them together in the first place, the demands for attention never stop? Anger, and guilt over the anger, will swell inside of them. From there its only a short step to resentment pouring out and manifesting itself in nasty ways.
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Now imagine these same people listening to Samuel L Jackson, street wise, tough enough not to take shit from anybody, reduced to a quivering wreck and pleading with his two year old to "go the fuck to sleep". At first they might laugh as they hear all the familiar ploys being used against him and his response, but gradually, they'll begin to find something else aside from humour in what they're listening to. For while Jackson's reading of the story remains hilarious throughout, it soon becomes obvious he's completely under the thumb of the child at the centre of his tale. No matter who you are, children are going to dominate. They are the kings and queens of their domains and parents are there merely to wait upon their every need. Which of course is how it should be at this age. Barely able to express themselves beyond desires for basic necessities a young child is completely dependent upon the adults in its life to keep it alive.

The wonderful thing about Jackson's reading of Go The Fuck To Sleep is how even though his frustration continues to rise over the course of the poem, not once do you ever have the feeling he's either threatening the child or even becoming angry. Sure he growls on occasion, but you hear the love that underlying every "Go the fuck to sleep" he utters. It's obvious that not only would he never dream of harming a hair on the child's head, he's willing to do everything necessary to make sure she's kept safe and happy. He's not about to spank a two year old for not being able to sleep, nor is he going to turn over her care to some nanny so he doesn't have to do any of the hard work in raising a child.

The example he's setting for any parent listening is a far better lesson in parenting than any that will most likely be offered by the self righteous who will be offended by the language used in this book. Not only is it rooted in a reality easily recognized by anybody who has ever tried to put a young child to bed, it couldn't be more obvious that his heart is overflowing with love for the child being addressed. It's perfectly natural for a parent to experience frustration and anger at times when raising a child, it's what a parent does with those feelings is important. Denying there would ever be a time when somebody would want to tell a child to "go the fuck to sleep" is to deny reality and make people feel needlessly guilty when they experience those feelings. When we do that it's the children who end up suffering the most as they are left in the hands of confused and bewildered parents who feel like failures. I'm sure there will be those who call this book an obscenity and demand it be banned, but the real obscenity is what happens to children when we attempt to deny the effect of our feelings upon them. We can only hope every parent buys a copy of Go The Fuck To Sleep and learns the valuable lesson it has to offer.

May 25, 2011

Book Review: Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons

When talking about the classics of modern literature people usually number Joyce, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Miller, and Mailer among those authors who have penned works worthy of that status. While they, and others, may have pushed the art of writing in new directions and redefined the boundaries of what constituted a novel, the elevation of their work into some separate firmament has had the unfortunate side effect of causing other worthy writers to be ignored and their work to fall by the wayside. This problem is compounded by our world's tendency to always be looking for the next "best thing" and our general disregard for the past. As a result, outside of the occasional university survey course in fiction, the majority aren't even aware of the vast body of fiction, most of which is of a much higher quality than what's available today, written in the first part of the twentieth century.

Thankfully there are still some publishers who have memories and who also realize there is value to be found in their back catalogues. I know there are those who look at a massive conglomerate like The Penguin Group of publishers with disdain, the fact remains they have been one of the most consistent producers of English language books. While some may still see in them vestiges of the old British Empire as they maintain outposts in former colonies India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland, they do in fact publish work by authors from each of those countries and don't just use local branches as clearing houses for remaindered works and boosting international sales. There's also an enormous plus side to their English language history as to what it means in regards to the books they have at their disposal from the past. Even better is the fact they make good use of this material and periodically reach back in time to dust off titles which otherwise might be lost to obscurity.
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This year they have reissued a group of titles under the heading of Penguin Essentials, with works by authors ranging from Thomas Hardy to Hunter S. Thompson and all sorts of stops in between. While some, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence have already been enshrined as classics and are familiar to a wide range of people, others are perhaps less well known. While it might never obtain the same status as some of the others in this list, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, released earlier in May 2011 by Penguin Canada, is more than deserving of its new release.

First published in 1932 as a wonderful satire of its times, the humour and points made by the author are timeless, so even if some specifics might be lost on a contemporary audience, its overall impact is still strong and the subject matter still relevant. You see, Gibbons' targets are universal as she pokes fun at the artistic pretensions of the idle British rich, rural melodramas along the lines of Wuthering Heights and other tales of steamy passion set amidst the wilds of Sussex farmlands. Along the way she also manages to take some shots at the "talkies", the upper classes in general, and the extremes of evangelic Christianity. However this is not the broad humour, almost farce, that passes for satire today, this is subtle and dangerous stuff in that you may not be able to catch on immediately to what is and isn't being made fun of. In fact she seems to have very deliberately made some of her targets very obvious, while others require careful thought and observation before being spotted. She may have felt the need to be somewhat circumspect with her barbs as some of those targeted were also those who would have made up her potential audience.

Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of twenty-something Flora Post. After living a privileged early life she discovers upon the demise of her parents she's nowhere near as well off as she thought as her father left her nearly as many debts as assets. While she's taken in by her affluent friend, Mrs. Smiling, Flora feels she must make her own way in the world. Having no money and no inclination to work, she wants to write a great novel when she's fifty-three and spend the interim period accumulating experiences, she decides to draw upon her one asset - a wealth of relatives. Encamped in fashionable London she sends out plaintive letters to relatives inviting herself to live with them. While most of them, "just won't do", her cousins the Starkadders, owners of Cold Comfort Farm in darkest Sussex, sound ideal.
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Flora is obsessed with organizing other people's lives and making sense out of the chaos most of them seem to live in. In the Starkadders and Cold Comfort Farm she finds the perfect subjects to put her skills to work. Her great aunt Ada Doom has hidden in her room for the past two decades, horribly scarred by what she saw as a youngster in the woodshed (or was it the potting shed or the bicycle shed?) Ada rules the roost at the farm, not allowing anyone to leave and controlling finances down to the last penny. Under her thumb are her son in law Amos, part time evangelical preacher; daughter Judith who gives new meaning to the word gloomy; their children, stolid farmer Reuben, over-sexed Seth and artsy, will o' the wisp, Elfine and various other assorted cousins and hired hands.

By the time Flora is finished with them their world has been turned upside down as she proceeds to take them all in hand individually and sort out their lives for them. While this process is the nominal plot for the book, the real joy in the reading comes from how Gibbons manages to weave her hooks and barbs into the story. Whether its her description of a church service conducted by Amos, the conversations between Flora and her various cousins, or what's revealed through the thought processes of her characters and their opinions of life, she manages to hit each and everyone of her targets in the bulls eye. Gibbons not only a gives clinic on how to write satire, she shows how it is possible for a skilled author to have multiple targets in a single book without creating a tangled mess.

Cold Comfort Farm is an example of just one of the wonderful treasures from our past awaiting our reading pleasure. Just because a work hasn't been designated a classic or isn't deemed literature doesn't mean it should be relegated to some dust heap. Hopefully new e-book readers will gradually make works like this one more readily available, but in the mean time we should just be grateful that some are at least hitting shelves of a book store near you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2010

My Favourite Reads Of 2010

I don't know how many books I read over the course of a year; especially when you include the ones I re-read, so for any title to stand out sufficiently for me to remember it from one end of the year to the other means it has to be something pretty special. Some years I've not been able to come up with ten books, and, others I'm hard pressed to chose among them, when putting together a year end list of favourites. This year sort of fell in between as after reading through the list of reviews I'd written over the course of the year and jotting down the titles of those which stood out, it just happened to turn out that I had picked exactly ten.

Any who have read my reviews in the past will be well aware of my liking of epic fantasy, and this year is no exception, but there are also a couple of non-fiction titles and a couple that might even be referred to as straight fiction. I know there are still those who would look down their noses at what some refer to dismissively as 'genre' fiction, but as far as I'm concerned it's there you'll find the closest we have come to continuing the oral tradition of storytelling that began with Homer and Valmiki. We may no longer rely on stories to explain away the workings of the world or the peculiarities of our gods, but they do provide us with the means of stretching our minds in ways we might not otherwise. Hopefully reading this list will encourage you to at least follow the links back to reading my full review of each title, and maybe even to read one or two of them as well. So, in order of when they were read over the course of the year, here are the ten books which were my favourites in 2010.

Dust Of Dreams by Steven Erikson. The ninth book of ten in Erikson's Malazan Book Of The Fallen series finds the world apparently on the brink of blowing apart at the seams as the schemes of gods are starting to fall into place. All that's seemingly protecting the world are what seems to be a pitifully small force of mortals, remnants of the once proud armies of the Malazan Empire. This near the end of a series most authors would have probably been content with simply continuing the story where it left off from the last chapter, but not Erikson. He has a whole world of beings to draw upon who are going to want to have their say in how things turn out, and be they living, undead, god, mortal or something in between they will be heard. Amazingly, one never feels confused when reading Erikson's work as the multiple plot lines and myriad characters always find a way to fit into the overall picture he is creating. It might take some time to see how a particular piece fits into the puzzle, but half the fun of reading is finding that out. Dust Of Dreams is another wonderful instalment in Erikson's epic tale with the only disquieting note being the realization there's only one book left after it.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Most histories that you read will tell of the big events from the point of view of the generals, politicians and other larger then life figures who have somehow been designated as the movers and shakers shaping them. The majority of the time we are asked to take somebody else's word that what we are being told is what actually happened. In their history of the United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have decided to let you have the opportunity to hear from people who actually participated in events throughout the years and let you form your own opinions. Instead of reading about generals and their great victories you'll hear from the soldier who fought in the trenches in the form of a letter home. This collection of speeches, letters and other writings from down through the years provides the reader an opportunity to hear from those whose voices don't usually make it into history books and provides a totally different perspective on events that you thought you knew so well. In these days of misinformation and spin, this book is a refreshing change of pace as we are able to read first hand what people actually said, not what somebody else wants you to think they said.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Somewhere in the backwoods of Ontario the old ways and the new world are having a head on collision. Ojibway novelist and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor creates a wonderful vision of what would happen on a modern day reservation if the trickster, Nanabush, from his people's legends, were to show up and try to liven things up a little. Nobody knows what to make of the stranger who roles into town on the back of a classic Indian motorcycle for the funeral of one of the town's oldest inhabitants, but they know there's something not completely right about him when the local racoon population are all so set against him. Funny, yet at the same time realistic in its depiction of life on a reserve, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass might not jibe with people's image of the noble savage or the drunk welfare bum Indian, but it does show how traditions can live on comfortably in the modern world. Pickup trucks may have replaced more traditional modes of transportation and computers and cell phones are as common here as anywhere else, but that doesn't mean you forget who you are and the stories that shaped your people.

The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar. Technically speaking this book probably shouldn't be on a list of books released in 2010 as it originally came out a number of years ago. However as I only read it for the first time this year I decided to include it. Martin Millar has always had a wonderful sense of the absurd and this is a shining example of that at work. How else would you describe a book featuring a massive battle between two fairy armies in Central Park, two Scottish fairies who've decided to go against tradition and play punk versions of old fiddle tunes and the ghost of the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders searching for his lost Gibson guitar? I guarantee you haven't read another book quite like this one, and not only will it make you laugh out loud, you'll never look at fairies in quite the same way again.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Guy Gavriel Kay has the incredible ability of being able to pull a reader into the world of his story right from the opening lines of his book. Before you've even read more than a few pages into one of his creations you've become so immersed in the world that no matter what the setting, its as familiar to you as your own. Under Heaven is no exception as he takes you into the subtle and dangerous world of 8th century China where sophisticated political minds, warrior societies and mysterious magical forces co-exist. As the story slowly unravels the combination of intriguing characters, twisting plots and intricately described world make this a fascinating and compelling read. This is historical fantasy as it should be written; most anything else is just a pale imitation.

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Smith's recounting of her formative years as a young artist is as much a love story about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe as it is an autobiography. A beautiful and honest recollection of both individuals coming of age as people and artists, Just Kids distils the innocence and excitement of two children discovering themselves and leavens it with the realities of living poor and struggles with sexual identity. As honest and unstinting a work as anything Smith has ever produced, this fearless book is not only her story, it also manages to evoke its era with everyone from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg making guest appearances in its pages. I don't normally like autobiographies or biographies for that matter, but if you read only one book this year - let it be this one. It will break your heart and lift you higher than the moon - a work of art by a brilliant artist.

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book that started it all. This was Muslim convert Knight's first book set in the fictional world of Islamic punks and the inspiration for the real life imitating art tour by Knight and various Muslim punk bands captured in the documentary Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam. In some ways the book is about the immigrant experience in America as second generation Islamic children try to find their place in a society where they are outsiders. Like other teenagers away from home at collage they explore sex, drugs and alcohol while trying to learn about life. What separates this from other coming of age stories is the underlying tension between the characters' religion, which they continue to practice and respect, and their attempts to reconcile it with their behaviour. Full of the noise and confusion of youth spreading its wings The Taqwacores manages to put a human face on Islam like few other works of popular fiction.

Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar. This is Millar's second appearance on this list, this time though for a book published this year. The sequel to his Lonely Werewolf Girl picks up where he left off with the adventures of Kalix, the banished werewolf princess, still trying to get her act together. Helped and hindered in equal parts by her human and fire elemental friends, hunted by family members and werewolf hunters, she faces her sternest test yet - remedial English and Math classes. This book was eagerly anticipated in my household and unlike many other sequels it not only lived up to expectations, but even surpassed them. Millar refused to take the easy way out by repeating the formulae that worked in the first book, and he has not only sustained the world he developed so well, but taken his characters and expended on the groundwork he had laid earlier. Is it possible for a near suicidally depressed teenage werewolf with an addiction to laudanum to be happy? Maybe, maybe not, but Kalix, bit by bit (and bite by bite if the truth be told) is taking her first steps towards independence and despite her occasional habit of ripping out throats of those who upset her, at least finding something close to peace of mind. A wonderful book in its own right, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is a must read for fans of Kalix and her buddies. If your sick of the whole romance story/vampire thing going on right now - this is the perfect antidote - I can't see any of those little whiners lasting more than a second or two in Kalix's world.

Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Pedro-Reverte. It's long been a tradition among fighting men that when things get a little too hot for comfort at home, one takes to the seas for relief. After saving the king's life one would think that Captain Alatriste and his ward Inigo wouldn't have a care in the world. Unfortunately they managed to piss off a lot of well connected people in 17th century Spain in the process, including members of the Inquisition who could make life very hot for them. Which is how they find themselves cruising the Mediterranean as part of the Spanish fleet preying upon the enemies of Spain. Off the coast of North Africa and Southern Europe that can be anyone from English privateers to Turkish merchant ships loaded with slaves, gold and perfumes. As usual Reverte has not only managed to capture the times the book is set in perfectly, his characters are so full of life they nearly leap from the pages. Combined with his ability to take you into the heart of a battle, with each sword stroke and musket ball described in such detail you almost feel the breeze they create stir your hair and scorch your skin, this makes for not only a great adventure, but a sobering contemplation of the wastes of warfare and the depths humans can sink to when in peril. This is the sixth book in the Alatriste series translated into English so far, and hopefully they'll be plenty more to come, as any other book of a similar type just pales in comparison.

Stonewielder by Ian C Esslemont. The year started with a book set in the world of the Malazan Empire, so it seems only fitting that it should end that way as well. Esslemont has published two previous works set in the world he and Steven Erikson created, and in Stonewielder he picks up with the characters he's introduced us to previously. Esslemont, like Erikson, has the ability to not only recreate the great sweep of events that make epics such a wonder to read, but to create characters who are so real that we experience what it's like for everyone from the foot soldier, the supreme commander of an army and the gods themselves to live through them. With each characters' perspective coloured by their own self-interest we are offered a variety of views of the same events and are left to decide on our own what's right and what's wrong. While Esslemont's books work fine as a stand alone series in their own right, taken in tandem with Erikson's they raise both up to a higher level. Remarkable books by remarkable writers make for great reading, and that's the case with this book and any book in this series.

(Article first published as My Favourite Reads of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2010

Book Review: Simon's Cat His Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield:

Nine times out of ten when somebody starts to recount some particularly memorable, at least in their minds, thing a pet has done there's a good chance that most will smile politely and nod. Like doting grandparents who can't understand not everybody is interested in every last move their little dears make, pet owners will regale the world with pictures and stories of their furred darlings without surcease. What most people with pets fail to understand is that, unlike what my cats get up to, there is nothing remotely interesting about their animals' behaviour. Being incredibly special, super intelligent and extraordinarily cute, my cats are of course the exception to that rule, and everybody will want to hear everything about them; from where they spew hair balls to how loud they can meow.

In fact pet owners are so renowned for this when I first started writing on the Internet the term "cat blog" was used derisively to refer to any blog which was no more than a personal diary. The attitude I expressed above is common to most of us who dote upon four legged critters, but really who is going to want to hear endless recounts of their doings? Let's be real, nobody is going to find stories about other people's pets funny enough to search them out on the Internet and read them, right? Well, try telling that to Simon Tofield, creator of Simon's Cat.
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Tofield is a British animator and illustrator who has taken idle sketches of his cats and turned them into incredibly popular short animated cartoons on You Tube. With over 50 million fans watching his videos, he must be doing something right, and if you check out the films page on his web site you'll see just what that is. A combination of simply rendered line drawings, cat sounds and over the top cat behaviour make them some of the most hilarious cartoons I've seen in ages. Ranging in length from around thirty seconds to a few minutes, they take such identifiable cat behaviours as playing with an empty box, stopping at nothing in the hunting of an insect and asking to be let inside and turn them into moments of hysteria. Tofield's humour resides in his ability to exaggerate normal behaviour to the point where it's ridiculous but still believable.

Well now the star of Internet video is available in book form; Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence are both available through Penguin Canada, and he is every bit as funny on the page as he is in your browser window. (Beyond The Fence is only currently available in the US as an eBook and won't be released in hard copy until June of 2011) Tofield's ability to communicate a lot with little translates onto the page wonderfully, making both these collections as much, if not more, fun than the videos. For the static frame has allowed him to add detail to his images not seen in his animations that, especially in Beyond The Fence, make them more complete.
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In His Own Book, first published a year ago and now re-printed as a softcover, introduced us to life around the house with Simon and his cat. Anybody who has ever shared space with a cat will be able to quickly identify with all of the scenarios depicted. Sure there are some instances when our cat friend's behaviour crosses out of the realm of realistic into fantasy. However, you have the feeling, if it were possible for a cat to do things like attempt to open a can of food on its own, it would do so in the manner Tofield depicts. If the little buggers can break into cupboards it's not much of a stretch to imagine them utilizing blunt instruments to try and smash cans open. Lacking opposable thumbs can openers are out of the question so it becomes necessary to find an alternative means of gaining access to a can's contents.

Beyond The Fence sees Cat carrying out every young child's threat of running away from home. After being forced to face the indignity of being bathed, hysterically depicted in a series of large panels - anybody who has ever tried to give a cat a bath will wince in sympathy as memories of being soaked and bleeding from numerous cuts surface - Cat stalks out of his "cat-flap". One can almost hear him yelling back over his shoulder that he's running away from home and won't you regret treating me like this now! For the rest of the book we follow Cat through a series of adventures out in the wilds. Who'd have thought that birds, mice and rabbits could be so cruel. The indignities he suffers at their paws and wings; although there is the mitigating factor that he is attempting to hunt them that speaks in their defence. Still, these are humbling experiences for our erstwhile hero in his quest for freedom and independence.
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While Tofield continues to employ only black and white, in this book he has taken more time with backgrounds and filling in Cat's surroundings. Yet, he does not ignore the details which have been the key to the cartoon's success. Specifically, his amazing ability to bring expressions alive on his character's faces with only a few simple lines. Giving animals human facial expressions is a tricky business as it can often end up being insufferably cute. Tofield somehow manages not to fall into that trap by avoiding making them overtly human. No matter if it's a haughty blue heron, a friendly otter, a snarky mouse or our long suffering Cat, each critter retains their animal identity while making no secret of their feelings.

Usually only fellow cat owners would be at all interested in stories regarding the antics of our four footed companions. With his wonderful sense of the absurd and deceptively simple drawing style, Simon Tofield has managed to break down that barrier and find a way to make cat stories universally appealing. While cat lovers will be identify with the cartoons on a personal level, having experienced something similar to what's being depicted at one time or another, the humour is such it will be next to impossible for anybody to resist the charm of these two books.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

August 31, 2010

Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar

Now a days you can't open the the TV listings, entertainment pages or go into a book store without coming across a reference to either werewolves or vampires. However, unlike the good old days when they were considered straight ahead creatures of evil who would as soon rip out your throat or drink your blood as look at you, they've been turned into tragic romantic heroes (or heroines) becoming the favoured subject matter of something called paranormal romance - enough to make Bram Stoker rise from the dead and drive a stake in anybody's heart. I can only guess this latest twist on the bad boy theme - kind of makes you miss the love and leave him cad or even the brooding dark haired guy with the mysterious past of the old days - will continue to rake in millions for publishers across North America as the way the number of titles falling into this category continue to proliferate suggests the public's appetite for this schlock isn't going to wane anytime soon.

Unfortunately with the market being swamped with dreck interesting titles run the risk of being lost in the shuffle. One of the best of the lot was Martin Millar's The Lonely Werewolf Girl. In it we were introduced to Kalix, a teenage werewolf who not only suffered from anxiety but was also saddled with an eating disorder and a nasty addiction to the opium derivative laudanum. The youngest daughter of the ruling clan of Scottish werewolves, Kalix was forced into exile in London for savaging her brutal father, the Thane. His death set off a brutal war of succession which split the clan in half and literally set brother against brother. Although Kalix really couldn't have cared less who became the new thane, she, the humans she befriended (Moonglow and Daniel) and their friend Vex, a fire elemental from another dimension, were all caught up in the resulting battle and barely survived.
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Along with her fashion designing sister Thrix, punk rock cousins Beauty and Delicious, Vex's adopted aunt Queen Malvaria and other assorted members of the werewolf clan, Kalix now returns in Millar's latest book Curse Of The Wolf Girl published in North America by Underland Press. With her brother Marcus enthroned as new Thane of the clan there are hopes that things can return to normal for everybody. While for most of them that means returning to the business of living peacefully in their private estates in Scotland, Kalix and a few others are firmly settled in London and have no desire to return home. As a result of her misspent early years Kalix didn't have the educational opportunities others in the clan were given and has reached the age of seventeen a functional illiterate. So, when the book opens we find her and Vex preparing to begin their first days at remedial collage where they will join with others hoping to learn basic literacy and math skills.

Unfortunately there are those unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie (or werewolves either for that matter). Underneath the calm exterior there is simmering resentment among some of those who backed Marcus's brother Sarapen as Thane and who wish to seek revenge of Kalix for having killed him in the final battle. Even while they plot to try and hunt her down, the guild of werewolf hunters have been quietly rebuilding their depleted ranks (they suffered horrible losses during the war of succession when they got in the crossfire so to speak) with dedicated hunters from Eastern Europe wishing to capitalize on the free market. They are hopeful that the combination of new members and modern surveillance technology will give them enough of an advantage they'll be able to exact revenge for their previous losses. Finally, a Princess of a rival fire elemental dimension who has long been jealous of Queen Malvaria's fashion triumphs because of her friendship with the werewolf designer Thrix, forms a secret alliance with a traitor in her rival's court that could not only see Malvaria overthrown, but the death of a great many werewolves.

What separated Millar's first book from so many other "werewolf" books, was how easy it was for the reader to take for granted his characters were werewolves. Sure Kalix was a ferocious warrior who had no qualms about ripping the throat out of any werewolf hunter or enemy werewolf she encountered, (she was born during a full moon as a werewolf and is able to change whether the moon is shining or not and has a battle madness that gives her a strength and speed far surpassing beings twice her size) but she's also a scared and confused teenager who was badly scarred by an abusive father. In Curse Of The Wolf Girl the characters continue to be interesting not only because of what they are, but who they are, and Martin has taken great care to continue their development in a very real way. In fact once you're able to suspend your disbelief about werewolves, fairies and elementals existing, everything about them and the world surrounding them is so believable you'll have no problem accepting their reality.
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It doesn't hurt that Millar has a wonderful sense of the absurd that injects necessary doses of humour into the proceedings. The fashion industry bears the brunt of most of his comedy - for all the right reasons - through Queen Malvaria's obsessions with clothes and accessories, especially handbags and shoes. However, he also turns his sharp eye on popular music, comics, and a variety of other popular culture affectations. Yet, unlike others, there's nothing mean or nasty about Millar's humour. Its the type of affectionate teasing you'd expect from someone who admires something but whose also well aware of the ridiculous lengths people will go to when something becomes an obsession - from collecting comics to yearning for the perfect shade of lipstick.

If you're not used to Millar's style of writing, short chapters that switch back and forth between his various characters and plot lines, you might find it a little difficult to settle into the rhythm of the story at first. However, once you are accustomed to how he works you'll soon begin to appreciate it for the ease with which it allows you to assimilate the information necessary for following the various plot lines and keeping all the characters, and how they relate to each other, straight in your head. Bouncing between the mortal realm, two separate fire elemental kingdoms, the world of the fairies and the home of the Scottish werewolves while keeping track of a multitude of characters is no easy task, but Millar has done it with an ease that borders on magical. (Perhaps he had some assistance from some of his friends from the other dimensions who appear on these pages - his familiarity with what goes on in some of them seems a little too complete for him not to have made the occasional visit there) While you'll have an easier time of it if you've already read The Lonely Werewolf Girl, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is self-contained enough to be enjoyed on its own.

In Curse Of The Wolf Girl Martin Millar once again proves that he's one of the more innovative and interesting fantasy writers around. He tackles subject matter that has been worked to death recently and makes it seem brand new. While his writing isn't going to appeal to the paranormal romance crowd, and for that we should all be eternally grateful, for the rest of us its a breath of fresh air in a genre that's become increasingly stale. If we're really lucky Kalix and her friends might supplant a certain whinny teenager and her un-dead heart throbs on movie screens. However, even if that doesn't occur at least you know you can run to the books for safety, and Millar has left open the potential for a third. If you like your humour with a bite and your paranormal grounded in reality, than look no further, Martin Millar's books are just what you've been looking for.

(Article first published as Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

While it's true that all immigrant children in North America have to deal with a certain amount of conflict between the culture of their parents and the new society they've landed in, some have a harder time of it than others. Obviously those arriving from English speaking European countries have the easiest time making the transition to the new world. Not only do they have an easier time passing because of skin colour, they usually share a common cultural heritage, or at least one not to far removed, from that of their new contemporaries. While they might have some minor adjustments to make, they're nothing to what faces the kids who not only speak different languages, but have a completely different cultural background.

While ethnic heritage can play a major role in determining how easy it is for a child to fit in with his or her new surroundings, those from different religious backgrounds deal with issues that most of us can't even begin to understand. This is especially true for those whose religion teaches a moral and cultural code that is in conflict with what is considered acceptable behaviour in our society. Not only do they find themselves being pulled in two directions at once, being attracted to some aspects of the new but wanting to remain loyal to their traditions, there is also the guilt they feel for any transgressions they see themselves as having committed when they do surrender some of their old moral code.

One of the ways some groups deal with this is by creating insular communities within the overall community at large so as to preserve the integrity of their culture. One of the earliest examples of this were the Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who established their own districts in cities in Canada and the US which included places of worship and schools for their children. Gradually over the years the community itself demanded a relaxing of the rules governing their lifestyle and out of that was born the three tiers of Judaism we have today; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. This compromise has allowed people to continue to be faithful to their religion while accepting the ways of the world around them to whatever extent they are comfortable with.
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Michael Muhammad Knight's first novel, The Taqwacores published by Soft Skull Press, has been labelled everything from a manifesto for the Muslim punk movement to a Catcher In The Rye for young Muslims. While those make for catchy tag lines on a book cover, they actually have little or nothing to do with the actual contents of the book. While it's true most of the characters in the book are both punks and Muslims, so you could make a case for the manifesto comment, the comparison to Salinger's work is a bit more of as stretch. Sure both are about young people, but aside from that they have little or nothing in common.

Knight's book is set in a house in Buffalo New York occupied by a collection of young Muslims. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is an engineering student at the university and from a middle class family in Syracuse. His family encouraged him to live outside the university in a Muslim house as "there were things in the dorm that were bad for him". However if they knew what went on in his house they might not have been so sanguine about his living arrangements. For while its true the occupants are all Muslim, they also spend most of their time smoking drugs and drinking, two things high on the list of no no's as far as most Muslims are concerned.

On the other hand the house's occupants do their best to observe the prayer times, and the four male inhabitants pray together on a regular basis. However they open their Friday night prayers to the whole community which means allowing men and women to pray together and having a woman take the role of Imam to lead them in prayer and give the sermon, neither of which would are considered acceptable by conservative Muslims. Even more disconcerting perhaps would have been the fact that immediately after the Friday prayers, the house would fill up with a mixed bag of local punks and play host to wild parties.

While we witness all of this behaviour through Yusef's eyes, he doesn't participate. He describes himself as the token nerd who is allowed to hang out with the cool kids, and he keeps up a continual internal dialogue about those around him questioning their behaviour. He is torn between what he's been taught is right, what the laws of his religion and tradition tell him defines a Muslim, and the reality he sees in front of him. Sure his friend Jehangir drinks like a fish, smokes dope, has sex and has a bright orange Mohawk haircut, but he also calls himself a Muslim and is as devoted in his prayers as anyone. Yet even this apparently free spirited Jehangir is plagued doubts, and after a while you begin to think a great deal of his excess is a result of not being completely certain he's doing the right thing in breaking the rules.
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While the book spares no detail in its description of people's behaviour, and no doubt it won't be just Muslims it will offend, it's beneath the surface that the real story resides. Knight's talent lies in his ability to create this incredibly diverse group of characters who not only spring off the page because they are so vividly described, but also represent a variety of viewpoints when it comes to what constitutes being Muslim. What's even more realistic is how he shows that doubts can cut both ways; for while the liberal punks might doubt themselves on occasion, the hardline character has cracks through which his doubts about strict adherence to the scripture comes through.

Western Judaism began its shift into the modern world through politics in the early part of the 20th century with the beginnings of the social justice movement. At the extreme end of the spectrum were the communists who rejected religion entirely. While they might not have represented the mainstream anymore than Knight's punks represent the mainstream of Islam, the ripple effect of their activities resulted in the gradual liberalization of their religion. The more extreme characters in The Taqwacores will not be acceptable to most Muslims, but like the communist Jews a century ago they don't expect or want to be. Their dream of a Utopian Islam where all are welcomed by all may never be a reality, but its the fact they dream at all that might end up making a difference.

What Knight has depicted in his book is the natural questioning of traditional values that occurs when an insular people are exposed to different views of the world. The questions his characters ask themselves are ones that have been asked many times before, and like those before them they discover there's no such thing as only one correct answer. While a lot has been made out of the book because its characters are predominately Muslim, its as much a book about the clash between tradition and new that occurs in all immigrant communities as it is about being Islamic. Knight has done a fantastic job of bringing that struggle to life as his characters navigate through the challenges that face any young adult, while doing their best to remain as true to themselves as possible.

If there is any hope for a world where religions and cultures can peacefully co-exist with respect and tolerance, we are going to need far more books like this one. It doesn't shy away from asking difficult questions or depicting things some might find unpleasant, but it does so without negativity or cynicism. This is not a blank generation without hope for the future. They might not be quite sure what the future will be or how to make it happen, but they'll do their best to make it better than what we have at present.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 4, 2010

Book Review: Dreams Of Sex and Stage Diving By Martin Millar

Years ago I participated in a five day theatre workshop called "Leap In The Dark". While the title suggests those participating would be going into uncharted territory, thinking back on the process, it now seems like the exercise was more training to take a leap than a leap itself. The exercises we were led through were designed to open us up to risk taking so in the future we wouldn't be afraid of taking the leaps in the dark necessary to the creative process. When you decide to make a career in the arts there are no guarantees of success; everything you do is a risk. The more willing you are to throw yourself whole heartily into something without worrying about the consequences the better.

These aren't blind leaps of faith based on some faint hope there will be someone there to catch you when you land. Instead you do it based on the faith you have in your own abilities to do what's necessary in order to complete whatever it is you've set out to do. Personally I always go through a period of agonizing before throwing myself off that precipice, but once I commit there's a great feeling of liberation and freedom, almost like flying, or at least tightrope walking without a net. If you fall you're going to splat resoundingly true enough, but think how wonderful you'll feel when you succeed. The only way you have a chance at making any dreams you might have come true is by taking some sort of risk. You can drift through life feeling mildly frustrated all the time and safe, or take the occasional chance and reach for your dreams.

It was reading the re-release of Martin Millar's Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving by Soft Skull Press which triggered those thoughts. Originally published in 1995, the book is set in familiar territory for fans of Millar's work, the streets of London England's Brixton. With poverty, homelessness, and unemployment rampant, the fact that the young punks who populate this book have dreams at all is remarkable, no matter how trivial or silly their dreams might appear to us or anyone else. The dream around which this book revolves belongs to one of the most unlikely, and frankly unlovable, heroines your liable to meet. Elfish brings new meaning to the word misanthropic as she stomps her unwashed way through people's lives in her oversized motorcycle boots and bad attitude.
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There's no lie she won't tell and nothing she won't steal in her quest to wrest the use of Queen Mab as a band name away from her ex boyfriend Mo. The two of them had not only been partners but also band mates, and upon the dissolution of their relationship she demanded rights to the name, in spite of the fact that she had no band and what looked like little hope of ever forming one. Prospects are looking particularly bleak when she discovers that Mo's band has a gig scheduled in ten days time. If they perform just once in public using the name she knows her hopes will be dashed. However, she's able to convince Mo to accept a bet which will see her win the band name if she's able to recite a speech from William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet about Queen Mab on stage prior to the gig and then have her band open the show. If she loses the bet Mo gets to do anything he wants with her.

So on top of learning the forty-three lines of the monologue, Elfish also must somehow put together a band within the next ten days as well. For most of us this would be a daunting task, one few of us would even consider taking on. The risk of making an absolute fool of oneself in public over something as apparently trivial as the name of a band just doesn't seem worth it. However Elfish is not like most of us and she's used to plunging headlong into the unknown. For while she may be well known as a self-centred and selfish individual, she's also equally renowned for her capabilities as a stage diver.

Small and wiry she's wonderfully adept at working her way through the throngs of people in front of a stage, eluding whatever security is on hand, climbing on stage and then flinging herself head first into the audience where her fall would be cushioned by those below. Crammed in as they are, most crowds have no way of getting out of a stage diver's way and can only defend themselves by raising their hands in order to fend off flailing boots, elbows, and other assorted body parts that have the potential to cause injury as they plummet earthwards.
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Much like she would dive off a stack of speakers, Elfish dives headlong into her quest to memorize her speech and coerce, bribe, beg, and lie to get people to join her band. Like the audience at a gig those she choses to descend on are defenceless against her onslaught as she preys upon their weaknesses and fears. Whether its the bulimic actress she bullies into helping her learn her lines with false promises of hooking her up with a fundraiser for her theatre company, the homeless guitar player she falsely assures of a place to live, or one of the many other lies she spouts in order to see her dream come true, they all strike a soft spot in her target as surely as a well place boot to the kidney.

Mab is the queen of dreams, and as she might visit us in our sleep to inspire us with thoughts and ideas, so Millar has Elfish visiting upon his cast of characters the inspiration to overcome their apathy and anguish to make their own tentative steps towards fulfilling their dreams. While they all might despise her for the methods she's used against them, without her they would have never done anything to change their circumstances, to take a chance on living again. Fairies aren't the pretty little things that Walt Disney or others would have us believe them to be. They are selfish beings who think of little else but their own pleasure, and often times that pleasure takes the form of poking and prodding humans in uncomfortable ways. Without intending anything of the sort Elfish assumes the role of Queen Mab for all those she comes into contact with, inspiring them to work towards the fulfillment of dreams they had almost lost hope in.

In Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving Martin Millar has brought a fairy to life on the streets of Brixton to remind us that sometimes the path to making our dreams a reality isn't an easy road. The spark required to overcome our fears, to make that leap into the unknown, isn't always the nicest of experiences, but without it where would we be? Millar's abilities as a story teller allow him to weave a modern fairy tale which, in spite of its desolate setting and the depression of its inhabitants, manages to make you believe that dreams can come true, even when the only rainbow in site is caused by an oil slick in a parking lot. Heck, if this bunch of losers can make things work out for themselves, it shouldn't be too hard for us now should it?

(Article first published as Book Review: Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving by Martin Millar on Blogcritics.)

May 12, 2010

Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well By Carole Enahoro

We take it for granted, after all its all around us, it literally falls from the sky, but in some parts of the world water is even more precious a natural resource than the petroleum we in the West cherish so highly. However its still a naturally occurring resource, one readily available through springs and water holes to those in the desert and to us in more temperate climates rivers, rain barrels and the tap in our kitchen sink. Of course we in the city pay for the water we use - usually in the form of a metered rate to our municipality - but the cost is usually so insignificant we barely notice. After all nobody is trying to profit from selling us our water or treating our sewage, just covering the costs.

However as recent events have shown us, nothing is safe from privatization and corporate greed, and water is no exception. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank debt laden countries are being coerced into selling their water rights to American and European private corporations. The results have invariably been disastrous for the general populations as water prices have risen by as much as %50. In Bolivia, where the rights were sold to Bechetel, an American company, in the late 1990's, the result was what's become known as the water wars. People rioted all over the country in response until the company was forced to cancel the contract.

Of course companies don't need the World Bank or the IMF to do all their dirty work for them. In an age where natural disasters and wars are considered golden opportunities for doing business, all a good corporate executive need do is wait for the next tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake to destroy some poor country's infrastructure, and with the right political connections they could end up owning the rights to almost anything they want. Offer to help secure the necessary loans from the World Bank to finance rebuilding that damn and then generously offer to purchase the rights to the water the dam controls in order to help pay back the loan, and everybody's happy - except for the people who are all of sudden paying for something they never had to before.
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It's against this background of international greed Nigerian/Canadian author Carole Enahoro has set her first novel, Doing Dangerously Well, being released by Random House Canada May 11/10. However its not just Big Business and the forces of globalization that come under attack in her book, as Enahoro takes shots at every side in the argument. Government officials in Nigeria, do-gooding liberals in North America, and of course corporate social climbers are all grist for her mill.

When a major damn bursts in Nigeria killing thousands of people in the initial deluge, and then thousands more because of disease, Nigerians and Americans alike see it as a golden opportunity for advancing their careers. Ogbe Kolo is the current Minister of Natural Resources and sees this as a golden opportunity to work his way up the ladder to President and Mary Glass of TransAqua International is the one to help him get there by helping rebuild the broken damn. In return she'll only want the water and power rights from the damn, but Kolo can keep the naming rights to the new river and gets to be President. It's a win win situation for everyone save those who happen to live and depend on the Niger river and its waters for anything at all.

Naturally there is some opposition to these plans on both sides of the world. In Nigeria they are headed up by Femi Jegede, whose home village was destroyed in the deluge and after recovering from his grief has determined to prevent the plans of Ogbe Kolo from bearing fruit. Across the Atlantic Ocean Barbara Glass is equally determined to prevent her sister Mary from succeeding in her efforts. She joins a radical-Water group, Drop Of Life, in that known hotbed of socialism, Ottawa Canada, to co-ordinate resistance with her Nigerian "brothers and sisters". That she barely knows where Nigeria is doesn't prevent her from hopping a plane to travel there in order to "mobilize" resistance.
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From corner corporate offices to the corridors of power in Nigeria and from the jungles surrounding the Niger river to the backwoods of Ottawa, Enahoro leads us around the world as we follow her assorted mix of characters. Save for Femi and his companions, they are a collection of the least likeable sorts ever assembled. All of them, from President Kolo to the Glass sisters and their supporting casts, serve nobody and nothing but their own ambitions. Enahoro mercilessly skewers everything from new age pretensions to capitalist greed as she follows each of her character's globe hopping search for personal fulfillment.

The problem is that in her eagerness to attack so many targets, we lose sight of the reality. While the press material claims Doing Dangerously Well is the first satire to deal with the issue of Disaster Capitalism, and by extension the way in which governments are coerced into selling off their resources by the World Bank and the IMF, there's far too much chaff thrown up by her multi-pronged attack for the reader to focus on any one subject. While I agree with her assessments of all her targets, it might have been better to tackle each of them separately. There is the basis for three good books in this one, but instead they've been crammed under one cover and the whole suffers accordingly.

While Carole Enahoro manages to convey some of the results of the destructive policies being implemented by the IMF and the World Bank in the developing world, the book's vagueness and burlesque humour make them seem far less dangerous than they actually are. Mistaking satire for humour is a common misconception, and in this case the result is to make those who the author has targeted seem to be less of a threat than they really are. Along with the World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank pose the largest threat to sustainable development, climate change, and, in the long run, peaceful coexistence among the world's nations of anyone.
By continuing to place more and more of the world's assets in the hands of fewer and fewer people they increase the divides separating the haves and the have-nots and the accompanying resentment that is the root of instability and terrorism.

Trivializing the actions of those involved by reducing them to the level of a farce gives a false impression of the real dangers we face by allowing this system to continue unchecked. The potential was there for an intelligent and bitingly funny book, but the author opted for the easy laugh instead. It's a pity because Enahoro is obviously intelligent and well informed with a good eye for the ridiculous on both sides of any issue. With a tighter focus she'll serve up some fine political satire in the future.

Article first published as Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro on Blogcritics.

March 23, 2010

Book Review: Bite Me Christopher Moore

Long before the New Moon saga had created a cult of adolescent girls going all weak kneed over the possibility of receiving a hickey from an un-dead heart throb, Christopher Moore had begun recounting the misadventures of vampires on the West Coast in Blood Sucking Fiends. Set in the far more exotic environs of San Francisco (Washington's overcast and rainy weather may sound like atmosphere to some, but to me it just sounds cold and damp) it, along with its sequel You Suck, recounted the story of how the put upon Jody became a vampire, and how she in turn converted her boy friend, want to be writer Thomas C. Flood.

Having a sensitivity to the UV rays of sunlight that not even the toughest sun-block will cope with, Jody had initially taken advantage of Thomas working the nightshift stocking shelves at a local grocery store and having his days free. This allowed him to run errands for her and take care of all that stuff that can only happen during the sunlight hours. So with Thomas becoming a vampire they find themselves in need of somebody to pick up the slack for them. By the end of You Suck they had settled on a young Goth girl, Abby Normal (Day Slave name Allison) to handle such tedious tasks as finding them accommodation and keeping them under wraps during the day. What they hadn't probably counted on was Abby and her bio-tech boy friend Steve dipping them in bronze while dead to the world in order to make sure they didn't split up and ruin Abby's romantic vision of the two vampires living an eternity of loving bliss with her as their worshipful minion.

Which is where we pick up the story in the third book of Moore's Vampire triptych, Bite Me, hitting the streets March 23rd/10 curtsey of HarperCollins Canada through its William Morrow imprint. In case anybody's missed the first two books, our erstwhile narrator fills us in on the details in her own inimitable style. An extended text message on speed coloured with sexual innuendo and rampant sarcasm through which we get periodic glimpses of the person hiding behind the pounds of make-up, fishnet stockings, and dyed hair. One of the key points of her summation is how a very large, hairless, cat named Chet has become a vampire and has now set out on a rampage through the city.
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Now Steve has been using his science geekdom, to quote Abby, to come up with a way of reversing what happens to a person's blood when they are "turned", or become a vampire. This becomes awfully key when it's discovered that third generation vampires - those turned by a vampire who were turned by the dude who bite Jody - don't have the longest shelf life without some rather intensive blood transfusions from the original dude. Jody will be okay, but anybody she has turned, or anybody turned by ingesting the blood of somebody she's turned, won't be around longer then a month. It means Thomas could go at any time, as could Abby. Oh yes Abby granted herself her fondest wish by ingesting the blood of some rats Steve had turned in order to test his serum.

Of course there's still the rather large matter of Chet as well, and the fact that he's not only drinking his way through the homeless population of San Francisco, but is also turning every stray cat he comes across. Chet seems to have also absorbed quite a few of the attributes of the elder vampire, the same one who turned Jody, and has not only grown in size to about eighty pounds, but has developed the ability to reason and think. He also has learned the very valuable trick of turning to mist - not something most novice vampires are able to do - and somehow or other also passed on this talent to felines he turns. Which means that come sundown that patch of mist drifting towards you down a San Francisco street could very well materialize in front of you as a hundred vampire cats looking to suck you dry.

Thankfully help is sort of on the way in the shape of three vampires who've been travelling the world cleaning up the messes left behind by the elder vampire who turned Jody. Unfortunately their idea of cleaning up also means eliminating any witnesses, which means not only Chet and his brood are in danger, but so are Jody, Thomas, Abby, Steve, and everybody who has had any contact with vampiric activity in San Francisco recently. That includes Thomas' fellow shelve stockers at the grocery store - a group of stoners referred to collectively as the Animals - and the two cops, Rivera and Cavuto who helped take down the original vampire.
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To be honest I worried that Moore was going to this particular vein one time to often writing another sequel to Blood Sucking Fiends as You Suck had already begun showing signs of thinning blood. However he's managed to inject some new life into the series through some ingenious plot twists and the introduction of a couple of new characters. He also, thankfully, splits the narration duties up amongst his characters, for at times I wanted to reach into the pages and grab Abby Normal by her throat to shut her up. If I heard one more conversation recounted as "Like he was then all" and "Like then I was" and "Like 'kay?" there's a good chance I wouldn't have finished the book. Some people might find it endearing or funny, but I thought it was just annoying to a point where it went beyond interesting characterization.

However Moore is a good enough writer that he pushes it to the limit but not further and doesn't allow his book to descend to the depths of being a one note joke. In fact by the end the joking has been relegated to the back burner as there's not only the showdown with the vampire clean-up crew to deal with, decisions have to be reached on everybody's part. Here again Moore shows his skill as an author through his ability to quickly switch tones. One moment we're in the middle of what can best be described as a horror farce and the next a gentle and genuinely touching story about the choices we make and the reasons we make them. Even more impressive is the way he is able to do this so that the transition from one to the other feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Vampires are all the rage right now among the teenage girl set with them swooning over handsome pale skinned heart throbs and dreaming of eternal love. Bite Me provides a nice antidote to the sickeningly sweet world of paranormal romance that's being peddled by the trash merchants these days. Even if slightly over the top at times, Moore is a refreshing dose of the absurd in a world which has started to take itself and fantasy far too seriously.

Book Review: The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar

New York City has long been known for attracting visitors and immigrants from all over the world as well as being a centre for artistic creation. So is it any wonder that artists of all shapes and sizes have shown up there seeking out fame and fortune? However, I doubt that even the creators of the I Love NY campaign (the first people to implement that annoying design of using a heart instead of the word love and who in light of its subsequent ubiquitous usage should have committed ritual suicide ages ago) could have foreseen the folk who flocked to the Big Apple in absurdist fantasy novel The Good Fairies Of New York.

While the book was originally published quite some time ago in England both Soft Skull Press and Tor Books currently have copies of the title on the market, with the latter being a mass market paperback while the former is available in an inexpensive trade paper back format. If it seems like I'm being a little bit biased towards Soft Skull, it's only because they've taken the extraordinary step for an independent publisher of picking up all of Millar's back catalogue, and have been steadily republishing them on a regular basis for the last couple of years. It was largely due to the success of Good Fairies when it was originally published back in 2006 that inspired them to be so unusually generous for a publisher.

I had read (and reviewed) Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl when it was first released, but had missed out on Good Fairies. Having enjoyed others of his recently released backlist (Ruby And The Stone Age Diet and Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation) it became imperative that I read Good Fairies. After all, as Neil Gaiman so accurately puts it in his introduction : "It has a war in it and a most unusual production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream and Johnny Thunders' New York Dolls guitar solos. What more could anyone desire from a book?" What indeed? In fact not only do his guitar solos play a key role in the book, the ghost of Thunders himself wanders through on a quest - he is searching for his lost 1958 Gibson Tiger Top electric guitar which was stolen from him after a gig at CBGBS. According to what he tells fellow former and deceased member of the New York Dolls Billy Murcia, as they are hanging out in Heaven, he had put it down on a bar stool, turned away for a minute and when he looked again it was gone.
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Thunder's quest however, no matter how urgent it might be to him (there's a definite lack of gritty rock and roll in Heaven) is merely a side show to the greater tales at hand - namely the recounting of the exile of two Scottish Thistle fairies, Morag MacPherson and Heather MacKintosh, and how they come to the aid of two of New York City's rather more typical inhabitants. Dinnie MacKintosh and Kerry live across the street from each other, but the gulf that divides their characters is as deep as the Grand Canyon and as wide as the Pacific Ocean. For while Kerry is a graceful beauty full of compassion and love for almost all her fellow human beings, (the sole exception being Cal her ex-boyfriend who dumped her when he found out she had a colostomy bag and completely reneged on his promise to teach her Johnny Thunder's guitar solos from his days with the New York Dolls, thus she is determined to wreck horrible vengeance on him in some form or another) Dinnie is not only the city's worst fiddle player, he's overweight, a slob, a bigot, and generally all around mean person.

So when Heather and Morag flutter through his apartment window stoned and drunk on too many magic mushrooms and too much single malt whisky he's not exactly ecstatic to see them. Nor is he much mollified by Heather's assurances that fairy vomit smells sweet to humans after she spews on his arm and carpet, and begins to heap abuse on their heads and demand they leave, even though both Morag and Heather tell him that humans in Scotland would be thrilled to be visited by fairies. He eventually gets half his wish when the two fairies discover a) that he is a MacKintosh like Heather and b) how bad a fiddle player Dinnie is. All of which leads to Morag making derogatory remarks about MacKintosh fiddle playing in general, and the two fairies having a glorious row ending only when Morag flutters out the window and Heather vowing she can teach even a clod like Dinnie to play better than any MacPherson.

The window Morag flutters into across the street from Dinnie's is of course Kerry's, and they immediately strike up a friendship. Morag vows to not only help Kerry learn all of Johnny Thunders' leads from his days as a New York Doll, but to help her exact vengeance upon the hated Cal by assisting Kerry in winning the East Fourth Street's Community Arts Association Prize. Cal's entry is an amateur production of A Midsummer's Night Dream, while Kerry is attempting to assemble the exceedingly rare and beautiful Celtic Flower Alphabet, in which each of the original symbols of the Celtic alphabet are represented by a different flower.
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What neither human are aware of initially is how the two eighteen inch high fairies came to be in New York City. They'd been chased out of Scotland for desecrating one of the three great Fairy Relics, The MacLeod Banner. Not only had they cut two pieces out of it to use as blankets, adding insult to injury, they subsequently blew their noses in them. While fleeing Scotland they met up with three fairies from Ireland, Maeve, Padraig, and Brannoc who were helping the son and daughter of the King of the Cornish fairies, Tulip and Petal, to escape their father's rule. Somewhere in transit the seven had stumbled upon a field of magic mushrooms, indulged heavily, ended up on a cargo flight to New York City and found themselves hung over and coming too on the back of a transport truck wending through the streets of the city.

While Morag and Heather were settling in with their new human companions the other five exiles were living in the relative serenity of Central Park. While they had managed to make the acquaintance of some friendly squirrels and make friends with local black fairies from Harlem, it was soon revealed that even emigration to the New World wasn't far enough to keep them safe from their father as he decided to send his entire army after them. Meanwhile things aren't going so well for the other exiles as neither of their plans to help their human friends are working out so well. Even Morag's befriending the ghost of Johnny Thunders doesn't alleviate the disaster of having the centrepiece of Kerry's flower alphabet, a rare triple bloomed Welsh poppy, go missing. When Heather manages to piss off both the Italian fairies - she's been robbing the wrong banks - and the Chinese fairies, chaos ensues and leads to the first race riot between fairies in the history of New York City.

Martin Millar has penned a spectacular and gloriously wild ride of a book which manages to be both side splitting and touching at the same time. While it might seem like there are far too many threads of story lines for a reader to ever keep straight, his unique style of writing in short, sharp bursts gives us constant updates as to everyone's condition and the overall picture gradually takes shape in front of us. Like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle, as a little more of each segment is revealed, the whole becomes clearer as well. The characters come into focus and the story takes on a life of its own as we delve deeper into their lives. As we are swept up into the current of events we can't help but give whoops of enjoyment as we hit the downward spirals, and think carefully over what is being said during the introspective ascents that precede them.

So wrap your clan kilt around your hips, strap on your claymore, and pick up your fiddle and be prepared for anything in this bizarre mix of traditional Scottish fairies and New York Punk. You might just find your preconceived notions of both stood on their heads and you'll be a lot happier for it. Fantasy writing needs to be shaken out of its stolid reverie and Mllar pushes and pulls it into dancing to something a little more daring than usual and its a lot better for it. You've heard of cyberpunk, well welcome to the world of faepunk, it can get bit wild and weird at times, but its a breath of fresh air that will revive even the most jaded of readers.

December 8, 2009

Book Review: Crack'd Pot Trail By Steven Erikson

In the constant struggle of good against evil there are occasions when those who ally themselves on the side of the angels are forced by circumstances into acts which would see them condemned as evil themselves if it wasn't for the sacred nature of their mission. For those unenlightened enough to hold paragons of virtue to the same standards as the rest of the great unwashed it would in fact appear that occasionally there is no difference to be found between those combating evil and the evil doers themselves. However, to those narrow minded and self-righteous individuals who have made it their goal to scour the world of evil by any means necessary, the ends will always justify the means, no matter how abhorrent those means might seem to the naive and simplistic unable to see the big picture.

The hand that wields the sword of purity can not be swayed by such trivialities as sentiment, nor can it be judged by the same standards to which others are held to. Would you ask the angels to explain themselves as they went about their business? How could anyone expect those blinded by the bright light of goodness to see beyond their own narrow focus to the extent that they be forced to consider the consequences of their actions? Self appointed guardians of morality, especially when heavily armed, need not answer to anyone, not even their own consciences, supported as they are by the certainty of their own superiority to all those surrounding them.
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In fact, would you not say it was a sign of their saintliness, that they will unwaveringly commit atrocities in their quest to combat the forces of evil? Would you have the fortitude, the strength of character, to make the decision to eat your companions in order to ensure the completion of your task? It's not just anybody who can look around themselves and judge others worthy of being the fodder that will keep them strong in pursuit of evil. If you would witness such strength in action, than step onto the Crack'd Pot Trail, Steven Erikson's latest release from England's PS Publishing concerning the travails and travels of the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. These two personifications of evil have swept like a scythe threw the known world, leaving behind them piles of bodies and acres of sin. Needless to say they've also managed to outrage the forces of decency and good everywhere they've travelled and now find themselves pursued by those dedicated to the sole task of wiping them from the face of the earth - the Nehemothanai.

Those familiar with any of the previous instalments involving Korbal Broach and Bauchelain will recognize some of the names hot on their tails - Mortal Sword Tulgord Vise from Blood Follows and Well Knight Arpo Relent from The Healthy Dead, and they are joined by the equally redoubtable Steck Marynd and the three Chanter brothers in their quest to exact vengeance on the necromancer duo for their foul deeds against goodness and decency. It's on the pilgrim path, the Crack'd Pot Trial, that we meet up with the heroes and the others making the trek through the harsh wasteland laying between the Gates of Nowhere and the Shrine of the Indifferent God. Aside from the above named there are amongst them are a mysterious noble woman who remains enclosed within her carriage the whole time, her manservant, a rag-tag collection of poets making their way to attend the Festival of Flowers and Sunny Days to vie for title of "The Century's Greatest Artist" awarded there each year, and one Sardic Thew who proclaims himself to be host of this erstwhile band of travellers.

According to the narration provided by one Avas Didion Flicker, under normal circumstances the trek across the desolate Great Dry would take twenty-three days and is eased by springs of fresh water and the welcoming camps of those called the Finders. Alas for our poor pilgrims, for the wells are fouled, the springs muddied, and the camps are all deserted this year. So the twenty-third day finds them barely half-way to their destination and their supplies depleted. It's the eldest of the Chanter brothers, the inaptly named Tiny (supposedly the result of his mother's tryst with a bear) who hits upon the solution of ensuring the Nehemothanai are fed by having the poets sing not to be supper. Each day the poets will strive to entertain the rest of the party and the first who fails to amuse will be slaughtered to feed the rest.
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Those horses among the company are needed by our champions in their pursuit of Korbal Broach and Bauchelain, and you can't deny nobility their carriage so the noblewoman's mules are sacrosanct, therefore the poets are the only bodies going spare. Besides, as is so aptly pointed out by the Well Knight, poets are known for their licentious behaviour and for inciting subversive thoughts that would not tolerated in a moral society. Anyway, if they aren't capable of entertaining, they serve no useful function and might as well do something of service and keep their companions alive.

Erikson's rather perverse and twisted take on Chaucer's Caterbury Tales differs from the original model in that not everybody is on the tale telling, and rather more is at stake with the tales than just whiling away the hours. In fact as readers we only ever hear two of the tales told in full, for on most occasions the poet who starts doesn't get a chance to finish before one or more critics decides to curtail their performance. The two tales we do here in full are the ones told by our narrator and he uses both to manipulate events on the journey to keep himself alive, proving that words can be as deadly a weapon as anything. However, as the pillars of virtue who made this competition a necessity are shown to exercise authority not because they hold some sort of moral high ground, but because their might makes them right, we can't help but applaud his efforts to stay alive

As is usual with Erikson there is more going on than meets the eye within Crack'd Pot Trail, as there are some carefully hidden agendas being plied beneath the surface. However what makes Erikson such a skilled story teller is his ability to gradually reveal what's going on through his characters and the events. He might supply us with a few diversions like an undead corpse joining the pilgrimage, but he doesn't allow them to confuse the issue or steal too much of our focus so we lose track of the real story. The characters in the story, whether old friends from previous stories or brand new, are sketched in rather broad strokes by our narrator, but we don't require more than those few lines to understand their motivations so it is more than enough.

Crack'd Pot Trail is a great piece of social satire which takes no prisoners. From the pompous poets who proclaim their greatness only to be revealed as thieves who've never written an original thought in their lives, to the warriors against evil who don't have a problem with forcing their companions to compete against each other in order to avoid being eaten. By the end of the story the so called villains of the piece come out looking a lot better than their reputations would have you think when compared with those who hunt them and the reader is left to ponder the exact nature of good and evil.

November 2, 2009

Book Review: The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer - A Retelling By Peter Ackroyd

I've always believed that if you want to truly understand a people and their culture you need to read the stories they've written, or told, about themselves. Its from these works that we can get an accurate depiction of what a people believe in, what guides their behaviour, and the philosophical and moral precepts they base their code of conduct on. While reading religious texts or morality tales may well outline the hierarchy among the Gods and the requirements placed upon a people for living a holy life, it's only in the stories that we see them in their day to day living. Of course, the stories are also a much more reliable indicator of the tenor of the times they were written in; for while a dictate in a religious text may not change over the centuries, the way people react to its strictures will vary from age to age.

Interestingly enough a number of peoples have turned to their own stories in an attempt to remind themselves of who they are in order to either stave off cultural extinction, like Native Americans and First Nations people in America and Canada respectively, or to reclaim their history and culture from former colonial masters. In India, for example, the British managed to rewrite history so successfully, the nineteenth century bid for independence by Indians is still referred to in most history books as the Indian Mutiny. So instead of it being depicted as the attempt of an oppressed people to throw off the invader it seems an illegal act against a legitimate governing body.

While you can understand the logic behind those efforts to re-visit older stories, what reason would an Englishman have for a similar project? There doesn't seem much danger of that culture becoming extinct nor has there been any recent attempt by a foreign power to re-write their history. Yet British author Peter Ackroyd has written a modern language version of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, being published by Penguin Canada on November 3rd/09.
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The original Canterbury Tales is credited with being the first major work of literature written in English. There's no denying it's historical significance either, as at the time French was the common language of the educated, the nobles, and Kings and Queens, the majority of whom were descendants of the Norman invaders of 1066. However, after the publication of Chaucer's book, that all began to change, and by the time the next king crowned English had become the official language of the court and learning. Of course the English it was originally written in is as foreign to most of us as if it were another language - anybody who remembers trying to struggle through reading "The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe" (Wife of Bath) in high school can attest to that - so aside from scholars, most people have probably never read Canterbury Tales in its entirety.

For those who might have forgotten, or never known, the basic story of The Canterbury Tales is a group of pilgrims setting out from London to Canterbury in order to visit the tomb of St.Thomas Becket, agree to each tell the others a story while they travel in order to pass the time more pleasantly. Aside from Chaucer himself who acts as narrator of the overall events, the party consists of a cross section of the time's society with about a fifty/fifty split between those in the employ of the Church and lay folk. Instead of referring to individuals by name, each of the party is identified by their position be it priest, nun, squire, knight, merchant, pardoner, summoner, friar, or Wife of Bath.

Some of the titles, like pardoner (sold pardons for sins on behalf of the church), and summoner (summoned folk to ecclesiastical courts), were positions in the church that have long since been abolished due to the abuses of those who filled their offices. Others like franklin, the name given to a landowner not of noble birth, and manciple, who we would refer to either as a quartermaster or supply clerk, have long since fallen out of common usage. However, no matter what their title or status, none of them are safe from the caustic commentary of Chaucer's pen. Whether it's the "Knight's Tale" full of extreme examples of chivalry, elaborate and overblown acts of piety, and idyllic depiction of romantic love or the Friar's and Summoner's bawdy and caustic tales about the other's vocation, he manages to satirize both the teller of the tale and tsome aspect of his times.
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According to Ackroyd's introduction when Chaucer went to Italy the major lesson he gleaned from the works he studied there was the importance of producing works in the vernacular of the people you're writing for. For a culture to thrive, it can't just be the province of the ruling classes, everybody needs at least be given the chance to enjoy it. By rendering The Canterbury Tales in language that most of the English speaking world can understand, Ackroyd is following in Chaucer's footsteps and making the work not only accessible to a new generation, but to a far wider audience then ever before.

Unlike earlier interpretations, which have adhered to the poetic structure of the original work and tried to be as faithful as possible to the text, Ackroyd's version is not only in prose but he has replaced words that are no longer in common usage with ones that convey similar meanings while retaining true to the spirit of the text. He's done a remarkable job, because while he has recreated the style of the original text, in that the cadences and manner it is presented are similar to middle English texts I've read, the language is sufficiently of the 20th century that no one should have any trouble understanding it.

Earlier I asked whether there was anything that could be learned from a retelling of The Canterbury Tales, comparing it to efforts made by other cultures to reclaim their history or relearn their traditions. While there may not be the same urgency or need as with those other efforts, its value as a first hand account of life from our history can't be overstated. Chaucer's frankness when it comes to sexual matters, and his refusal to revere a person because of their office, whether secular or religious, shows that no matter what the age the role of the artist has always been to question and hold a mirror up for society to see itself warts and all. In this day and age when people look to the past to justify prudery in the name or religion, and far too many in power seem to expect shelter from prosecution based on the privileges granted them by their office, its nice to be able to point out precedent for the opposite.

Aside from any deep sociological and philosophical reasons for this work being re-written, there's also the fact that its a lot of fun to read. Where else will you find the answer to how to divide a fart into twelve equal parts? Part Monty-Python, part Carry On gang, and part biting satire, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is one of the funniest works of English literature. With his retelling Peter Ackroyd has given everybody a wonderful opportunity to enjoy it to its fullest, and as close to the spirit that Chaucer wrote it in as even the most devout literary purist could want. Sometimes a story is its own best reason for its revival, and that's definitely the case here.

August 5, 2009

Book Review: The Sheriff Of Yrnameer By Michael Rubens

The roots of English language comedic writing can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Chaucer put together an extremely odd collection of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, had them tell each other stories to pass the time, and English literary comedy was born. The trail between the Medieval England and present day leads through Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and other great satirists and humorists down through the years.

When this comic sensibility met up with Science Fiction in the twentieth century the possibilities seemed endless. First of all there was the tendency among science fiction aficionados to take themselves and their genre far too seriously creating endless opportunities for satire. However, the potential for absurdity reached new heights with Star Trek and the obsessive fan syndrome it spawned. Of course when adults are prepared to dress up as their favourite species from a fictionalized television show and attend conventions with others so inclined, you don't have to look far to invent absurd situations. In fact one of the great difficulties in creating comic science fiction is absurdity is so thick on the ground in the first place that writers have to be careful not to go over the top and ruin their premise.

Even the best of the contemporary comic writers in the genre, the late Douglas Adams, fell into that trap with Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by going back to that well even when it was tapped out. Setting something in outer space in the future does not automatically make it funny - if a joke doesn't work it doesn't work no matter where you have it being told and who or what's telling it. Of course humour is a highly personal thing and what one of us finds funny another might find stupid. However there's more to writing a funny book than turning it into a series of jokes, or stringing together a series of comedy sketches loosely tied together by the fact the same characters appear in all of them.
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Unfortunately the new novel by Michael Rubens', The Sheriff Of Yernameer (Your name here) published by Random House Canada released August 4th/09, falls into that latter category. For while the novel has a loose over all framework, the characters stumble through a series of unrelated situations while travelling across space to their final destination. This structure isn't surprising when you consider Ruben's previous experience was either producing or writing for television, including sketch comedy shows like the Daily Show With Jon Stewart. However what works for a television sketch comedy show, for all its intelligence and humour, isn't going to necessarily work in a novel.

The story revolves around the misadventures of Cole a failed smuggler and second rate crook. Not only does he owe money to a particularly nasty bounty hunter named Kenneth, his girl friend has just dumped him for his side kick, and his space ship has just been turned to dust for his failure to pay his docking fees. In order to get away from it all, specifically Kenneth whose offered to lay his eggs in Cole's brain in lieu of payment, he steals a fellow, far more successful, crook's ship and in the process inherits its current mission. Transporting a colony of freeze dried orphans to Yernameer, the last unbranded planet in known space.

Everything, from the bullet about to kill you to the crook who fired it at you, are sponsored by somebody. Some items - like the guns that shoot the bullets - even come with little messages telling you how proud they are to be sponsoring this event and how wonderful a job their product is going to do in killing you. Hence the attraction of the last unbranded planet to those who wish a return to simpler times, or who are on the run from the law or other types. However Cole and his clients are in for a rude surprise when they arrive on Yernameer, as its not just happy settlers who have come to this final outpost on the edge of the frontier. It turns out the universe's nastiest gang of inter-species outlaws have crash landed here and are about to start making life miserable for those living in the one town on the planet.
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When Cole does a Dorothy and lands his spaceship on a band of the outlaws delivering an ultimatum to the townsfolk, it's decided he's the one to protect the settlement from the bad guys and he's made sheriff. Which, in spite of his best intentions otherwise, he somehow manages to do. Even Kenneth showing up looking to do some nesting doesn't change matters, and Cole stumbles through to the end a winner and a loser all at once. While Cole's character is likeable enough, in a he's really pathetic sort of way, everything about him and his adventures have a strong air of deja-vu written all over them. Even though some of the scenarios might be original, there's the constant feeling of, I've read this before, permeating the whole book.

As a result the humour quickly becomes tired as the jokes sound all too familiar. From the space station full of middle management types on a training course who have turned into cannibals because of an implant to the world's stupidest computer named Peter, nothing about the book is really that funny. It's unfortunate because the potential is there for a very funny book about branding, logos, and sponsorship, but Rubens opted for easy jokes instead of exploring the topic with any depth.

While there's nothing wrong with The Sheriff Of Yrnameer, there's also nothing about it that is of particular interest to hold your attention. While the comparisons to the work of the late Douglas Adams are inevitable they're not going to be favourable as this book lacks the freshness that made his initial works so captivating. There's a galaxy of humour out there waiting to be discovered, but unfortunately this book goes places where far too many have gone before and the scenery has become boring.

You can purchase a copy of The Sheriff Of Yrnameer either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

May 28, 2009

Book Review: The Enchantment Emporium By Tanya Huff

Most authors end up being identified with a specific type of writing. He's a horror writer, she writes romance novels, and he writes historical fiction. There aren't too many writers out there who are able to switch between genres easily and create stories as credible in one as they do in another. One of the exceptions to this is Canadian fantasy/science fiction/horror novelist Tanya Huff. She's not only capable of delivering well crafted stories and plots in every genre she attempts, but she also consistently creates memorable characters whom her readers can identify with whether they're the bastard vampire son of Henry VIII of England or a Marine Staff Sergeant fighting in deep space.

Therefore, whenever a new novel by Huff is released I always look forward to discovering what she's planned for us this time. For while she does have some continuing series, she also can be counted on to bring out something apart from them at regular intervals. That's the case with her latest release from Penguin Canada, The Enchantment Emporium. Like so many others of her books this one is set primarily in a landscape that will be alien to most of us, the city of Calgary in the province of Alberta Canada.

The second largest city in the province best known for being the home to Canada's largest population of cowboys, and the largest producer of Natural Gas and Oil, seems at first glance to be an unlikely place to set a fantasy novel. Yet that's just what Huff has managed to do with her usual flair. It seems that beneath its rather roughneck surface Calgary is home to a rather large population of fantastical beings and they all seem connected to the Enchantment Emporium of the title. However, there's also something not quite right in Calgary, and it looks like some sort of deadly convergence of powers is about to take place that could end up levelling the city.
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Alysha Catherine Gale isn't to know this when she receives a mysterious letter from her grandmother saying that if she's reading it that means her grandmother is probably dead, and could she come out to Calgary and take care of her store, The Enchantment Emporium. Now while the news of a grandmother's death might come as a shock to most families, the Gales, by anyone's stretch of imagination, aren't most families. They are a family of magic users who can change the course of events with the charms they cast. However there's more to them than just being spell casters. The men of the family having a tendency to manifest antlers when they exert power and butting heads with each other on occasion being only one example.

If the thought of the Gale men growing a rack the dream of every weekend hunter gives you pause, than what the women who are the real power in the family can do with pie and cakes is better left alone. Sufficient to say that evil sorcerers will go into hiding for years on end in order to avoid being sniffed out by just one of the Gale woman, let alone the older women known as the aunties who try to control the family. To the younger generation like Alysha, the aunties as a group are a combination matchmaker and interfering busybody who ninety percent of the time you wish would stay the hell out of your business. However, the other ten percent, when the you know what is about to hit the fan, you couldn't find a better group for guarding your back.

It's mainly because of their annoying tendencies that Alysha jumps at the opportunity to go and check out what's going on in Calgary. While no one really believes that there's anything out there that could have put grandma down, something did make her disappear which makes it worth looking into. So with the help of Joe, a rather oversized leprechaun, she takes up the job of both running the Enchantment Emporium, and trying to figure out what happened to her grandmother. Her job would be a lot easier of course if she didn't have to deal with any number of her cousins "helping", and trying to figure out a way of preventing the aunties from killing the new love of her life just because he happens to work for an evil sorcerer.

While said evil sorcerer doesn't appear to have had anything directly to do with her grandmother's disappearance, after all been he's hiding from her for the last ten years, (The Gales kills sorcerers just on principal alone because they are the epitome of the saying, all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) something he's done just might be be behind it. Of course the fact that there's a gateway open between the other realms - places where demons and other assorted nastiness lives - in the middle of downtown Calgary might also have something to do with it. It also might explain the presence of the twelve dragon lords who keep buzzing the Enchantment Emporium every morning and giving the local pigeons heart attacks.
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If it sounds like there's a lot going on in The Enchantment Emporium, you're right there is. However, one of the wonderful things about Tanya Huff is her ability to build a story like a giant jig-saw puzzle, and each piece that's supplied makes the picture that much clearer, not more confusing. So as Alysha, and her compatriots, gradually figure our what's going on, so do we. In this way Huff not only has created a story that's easy to follow, she also pulls us into it by keeping us involved with its development. Even better is the fact we are able to enjoy the ride at the same time.

Part of what makes the ride so enjoyable is that all of the characters, from Alysha to the dragon lords, are a pleasure to read about. They are funny, smart, and not without their flaws; all of which makes them real to us no matter how outlandish they might be. The depiction of a dragon lord in his human form, a being who could destroy the city of Calgary without thinking twice, white knuckling through his first car ride is a great example of not only Huff's humour, but her ability to create multidimensional characters.

Tanya Huff fans will be pleased to know that The Enchantment Emporium is filled with examples of her rather offbeat humour like the scene described above, and that her slightly askew world view hasn't changed in the least. While there's nothing normal about the Gale family in terms of our world, within the covers of this book their reality is normal and it just might change the way you look at things. It's not very often that you find a book that's not only hugely entertaining, an exciting adventure, and that also provides you an opportunity to change your perspective on the way the world works, but that's what Tanya Huff does here. If you've never read anything by Huff before, this is as good a place as any to start, and if you're a long time devotee you won't be disappointed either. This is one fantasy book that is genuinely fantastic.

Tanya Huff's The Enchantment Emporium can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or another on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 1, 2009

Graphic Novel Review Tank Girl One & Two Re-mastered Editions Alan C. Martin & Jamie Hewlett

Nowadays when people speak of graphic novels they mean that the item in question is usually a comic book with the equivalent number of pages as a prose novel. Therefore the graphic they are referring to is the media in question not the content of the work. However, there are instances when the word graphic does double duty in describing both the content and the form of a graphic novel. One of the earliest, and still one of the best, of those comics, was Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl.

Giving new definition to the three "Rs", Raunchy, rebellious, and more than a little revolting, Tank Girl, her main squeeze Booga the kangaroo, Jet Girl, Sub Girl, and friends (and enemies) first saw the light of day in the late 1980's. She flaunted her stuff in black and white and colour for a while before disappearing in a cloud of dust into the Australian Outback where she first appeared. Along the way she managed to confront and confound authority and hypocrisy while propagating her own version of anarchy from behind the wheel of the super charged and heavily armed tank she took her name from. While the original individual comics were packaged together into five graphic novel sized issues a number of years ago, Hewlett and Martin and Titan Books have now begun the process of reissuing them chock full of all sorts of added bonuses.

Tank Girl One: Re-mastered Edition and Tank Girl Two: Re-mastered Edition have now been released for a new generation of malcontents and disgruntled types to enjoy the havoc she wrecks upon the forces of conformity and normalcy. However these new books aren't for new readers only for not only do they contain the stories that appeared in the original books, they also include new illustrated introductions from the Alan Martin and reproductions of rare Tank Girl artwork.
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Tank Girl One: Re-mastered Edition includes the first thirteen issues of the comic originally published from 1988 through 1990. Watch as she deals with a gang of desperado kangaroo bikers, fails in her top secret mission to deliver a colostomy bags to the president of Australia, and then in subsequent issues has to deal with the consequences of her failure. However neither a bounty hunter come to collect the reward placed on her head for allowing President Hogan to mess himself in public, nor her former boss in the Australian Armed Forces, Sergeant Small Unit, and his team of special operatives can defeat our heroine.

Of course we shouldn't be surprised by that, for how could they stand up to anyone able to out wit the devil by trading him God's bathrobe for three wishes and using one of her wishes to trick him into performing a charity marathon instead of invading heaven? Nope, nobody is going to get the drop on Tank Girl, not even the Australian Mafia and their efforts to control the beer market by flooding it with cheap swill and confiscating all the descent brew. No wonder, for as we find out she's the incarnation of the aboriginal earth spirit Tanicha who was first invoked to protect the tribes from white red-necks encroaching even further into their lands.

Tank Girl Two: Re-mastered Edition covers our force of nature's publication history from 1990 through 1992, and this time she's in living colour - at least some of the time. The second collection also sees Tank Girl start to head into deeper water as she rails against conformity by storming a state run "reconditioning" centre and frees the inmates in order to attempt an assault on Tasmania. However the powers that be have other things in mind, and the creators of the comic interrupt the story line to announce their retirement from comics. After taking a few well aimed kicks at the industry - likening it to a British private school run by a demented headmaster - we're returned to the regularly scheduled strip and more adventures of Tank Girl and her band of merry crazies.
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What separates Tank Girl from your more run of the mill graphic comics is not just the gratuitous sex and violence, it's the manner in which Hewlett and Martin present it. Normally comic super heroines always look like they were drawn to fulfill adolescent male fantasies, have zero in the way of sexual identity, and end up doing as good a job of objectifying women as pornography. Tank Girl not only features a heroine with a healthy libido, by featuring a character who is gleefully aware of her own body, and who cheerfully threatens her creators with dismemberment whenever they try and show her naked, they prevent her from becoming anyone's object of desire.

The whole "adult" graphic novel business is lampooned mercilessly in Tank Girl as everything is kept as cartoonish as possible. From the outrageous plot lines to the excessive violence that like a scene from a Monty Python movie verges on the absurd, Hewlett and Martin skewer every last pretension in the business and roast them on a barbecue. Yet, even while they were doing that, they still managed to create stories that were both fun and intelligent in of themselves. Normally reading something like a comic book more then twenty years after it was first released, it feels dated as the world has changed so much since it appeared and its subject matter is no longer relevant. Hewlett and Martin did such an amazing job with Tank Girl that it seems as fresh and irreverent as it did when its first issue hit the shelves in 1988.

While the new introductions to the books and the extra artwork are cool, the best thing about these re-mastered editions of Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two remains the comic itself. Devout fans of the series will want to buy these new editions for the extra bonuses while newcomers will have the luxury of not only enjoying Tank Girl's mayhem for the first time, but also owning the most complete versions of these anthologies published to date.

February 21, 2009

Book Review: Fool By Christopher Moore

Some of the best roles in Shakespeare aren't necessarily the title role of a given play. Ask any actor who he'd rather play in Julius Caesar, and old Julius will be well down the list as he doesn't even make it half way through the play. Even in those plays like Othello where the lead has a lot to do, it's Iago, the villain of the piece, who is by far the juicier role to play.

While the part of The Fool in King Lear is not as substantial as that of Iago, he's still one of those secondary characters that many actors would give their eye teeth to play. When Kenneth Branagh was still staging live theatre productions, Emma Thompson, his wife at the time, played the role of the Fool in his staging of King Lear and practically stole the show.

So the idea of retelling the story of Lear from the point of view of the Fool as Christopher Moore has done in his most recent release, Fool, published by Harper Collins Canada, is an interesting idea, especially if one were wanting to turn the story into a bawdy farce that's as much a tribute to British humour as is it is to Shakespeare. Anyone who has read any of Moore's previous works knows that he is as capable of writing intelligent, subtle satire as he is pie in the face slapstick, and often combines the two with great success to write stories that are both thought provoking and hilarious. While Fool tends to lean more towards the outrageous than the subtle, imagine King Lear being staged as an episode of Fawlty Towers, its kept from descending into mindless farce by Moore occasionally injecting doses of reality.
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For those not familiar with the basic plot of Lear, an elderly king of England decides the time has come to split his kingdom between his three daughters, and bases his decision on who gets what on how much each love him. Being a vain old man he allows his two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, to flatter him with false words of love. However, when his youngest daughter, Cordelia refuses to play that game he disinherits her and splits his kingdom between his two eldest daughters with the proviso that he live half the year with one, and half the year with the other while Cordelia is married off to a Prince of France and banished from England. As it turns out, of course, Regan and Goneril show their true colours fairly soon and refuse to take care of Lear and end up plotting against each other for sole control of the kingdom.

In Shakespeare's version of events a third character, Edward, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is the one who contrives to set the two daughters against each other by feigning love for both of them. In the version of events as narrated by Pocket, Fool (or Court Jester as we'd call him) to the court of King Lear, he's the puppet master behind the scenes doing his best to manipulate events. Unfortunately too many of his puppets have minds of their own and his plans quickly go awry. Initially he had hoped to ensure that Cordelia, his favourite among the three sisters, would remain at home in England and not be married off to a foreign prince, and when that fails he's left scrambling to find ways to make things right.

While Moore adheres pretty much to the story line of Lear as Shakespeare wrote it, it doesn't stop him from adding in a few extras from other plays as well. There's a vengeful ghost, shades of Hamlet (because there's always a "bloody ghost"), as well as a couple of guest appearances from the three witches of Macbeth, Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary, ("What no Thyme" said Kent. "We've the got the time if you've got the inclination") to help propel the plot along. Of course the major difference between the original and Moore's version is the tone; instead of Lear the tragic hero undone by his flaw of vanity as the main theme we are treated to a ribald adventure along the lines of The Decameron.

In most instances when a modern writer attempts to satirize Shakespeare they fall flat because no matter what they do their efforts pale in comparison to the original. What separates Moore's effort from any of the others that I've read is the fact he is able to reproduce the tone and spirit of the original in his use of language. Even though he is writing in mainly modern vernacular when his characters resort to bawdy language he draws upon the vast and colourful vocabulary of Elizabethan England giving them a verisimilitude lacking in most modern attempts at creating characters from this time period.
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However it's more than just his characterization that makes the story work, it's the fact that underneath all the humour and silliness one can't help but see Moore's admiration for the original work. Whether it's his adherence to the original story line, or the fact he retains some of the more powerful lines from the script - Lear calling on the storm to blast him after he's been betrayed by Regan and Goneril and is wandering upon the heath on the verge of madness for instance - it all adds to the overall sensation that although Moore is having fun with the the text, he's not making fun of it.

In his after-word to the novel, where he explains how and why he came to write Fool, Moore tells us not to bother going back to the original script to compare the two as he's drawn upon a number of Shakespeare's plays as a sources for dialogue. However, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, what Moore managed to do is actually increase my appreciation for the original. Not because he's done such a lousy job that it made me ache for the original in comparison, but because it was so well done that it reminded me what a wonderful play he had based his story upon.

It's been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but a codicil to that should be added that includes a work like Fool. What Moore has done with Fool is taken one of the great works of literature, King Lear, turned it on its head, and in the process reminded us of Shakespeare's genius. Genuinely funny, and wonderfully irreverent, Fool will appeal to any reader, whether they are familiar with the original work or not.

Fool can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

January 14, 2009

Book Review: Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation By Martin Millar

The phrase, are you paranoid if they're really out to get you?, might have been invented for Alby Starvation. Alby, the title character in Martin Millar's 1987 debut novel Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation being re-issued by Soft Skull Press, and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, on February 9th/09, worries constantly about his health, the hit man that the Milk Marketing Board has set on him, the Chinese gang leader trying to find him, and which of his friends and acquaintances are after his comic collection.

While those friends of Alby's who he's still talking to, well not really friends but some folk who buy drugs from him, tend to think that it's all in his head, the reality is that the Milk Marketing Board really have set a hit man on him and a mysterious Chinese gentleman is trying to get in touch with him. So he stays huddled in his apartment with only his hamster and his comics to keep him company watching as his reflection in the mirror looks gradually sicker and sicker. His doctor won't believe that there's anything wrong with Alby - but than again he's only waiting for Alby to die so he can scoop up his complete set of Silver Surfer comics.

It was Alby's health, and that bastard doctor, that was the cause of all his trouble to begin with. Certain he was dying, he wasn't able to keep food in and was gradually wasting away, he went to his doctor only to be told that it was nerves. It was only his buddy Stacey's suggestion that he might have food allergies that saved his life as far as Alby is concerned, unfortunately it also signed his death warrant with the Milk Marketing Board. You see Alby turned out to be allergic to milk and once he stopped drinking milk he got instantly better.
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That would have been fine and dandy, but he had to go and tell somebody else suffering from similar ailments and she got better instantly too. Which might have been okay as well except she had a friend who was also very sick and asked Alby to talk to him, and he turned out to be a reporter for the local community newspaper and wrote a little article about being allergic to milk. That's when things began to snowball, and Alby eventually found himself the head of an anti-milk campaign that galvanized all of Britain because it turned out there were millions of people across the country allergic to milk suffering horribly.

When the sale figures for milk go south, the Milk Marketing Board turns the matter over to their dirty tricks department - modelled after the CIA - to sort it out. With no time to lose they decide the best course of action is to nip things in the bud and take out the person at the top of the anti-milk campaign - Alby. By sheer luck the first person sent out on the job is "Born Again" on the way to kill Alby, and in a fit of remorse for past killings tips him off that he's a target for assassination. You'd think that nothing could make a paranoid happier than finding out somebody is really out to get him, instead it makes Alby all the more miserable.

Now Alby isn't the only odd soul living London's Brixton district during the waning days of punk in the mid-eighties. They're are the speed freaks he supplies; the archaeology professor posing as a city employee so he can dig up the street in his search for a lost crown said to be buried in Brixton; the mysterious Chinese gentleman who used to be in charge of Heroin quality control in the Golden Triangle; the psychic nurse who doesn't know she's psychic; and of course the second hit man hired by the Milk Marketing Board, who turns out to be a woman named June.

With the story bouncing around like a pinball game on acid, (or is it like you being on acid watching a pin ball game) what with the plot bouncing off one character or story line after another and back again, and with no clue as to whether somethings happening in the past or the present, it's initially hard to quite follow what's going on in Alby's life. In some ways its akin to reading a cubist painting by Picasso where instead of merely seeing a single view of the subject the artist shows you all sides simultaneously in what looks like a an insane jigsaw puzzle of body parts.
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The past and the present appear in adjacent paragraphs offering no clue as to which is which; we see the world through the eyes of characters who are on the periphery of the story; and intermingled with all of that we have Alby's disjointed narrative of events. Yet out of this seemingly random scattered collection of information a picture gradually forms of Alby's life, the lives of those around him, and the general air of desperation to find meaning to existence that grips so many of us.

Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation is the flip side of the popular image of punk as a revitalizing movement for social change as we meet the ones who came for the party that never realized it wasn't just about loud music, getting drunk, and doing speed so they could dance all night. Like the dregs of the hippies on heroin after the days of flower power and peace and love had passed, the characters of Alby and his friends are pathetic lost souls with no direction who wanted something for nothing and ended up going nowhere fast. Whiles there's a dark humour to Ably's neuroses, in the end it's just sort of sad and pathetic.

What saves the book from being ultimately depressing though is Millar's sense of the absurd, for the story line is right out of Monty Python's school of taking an illogical situation to its most logical conclusion. That Alby is not crazy and the Milk Marketing Board has really hired an assassin to kill him because he has adversely affected milk sales across Britain, is merely the tip of the very peculiar iceberg contained within the pages of the book. While it might not be to everyone's cup of tea, if you're willing to put up with the slightly bitter taste and the twist and turns of the style,Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation will never bore you and will continually surprise you. That alone makes it worth reading.

November 24, 2008

Book Review: The Cream Of Tank Girl By Alan C. Martin & James Hewlett

Once upon a time, well in the late 1980's anyway, when we were all younger and lost in the wilderness, desperate for the type of example only a true leader can set, fortune sent us an anarchistic typhoon to clear all the bullshit from our path. With a can of lager in one hand (well actually anything with an alcohol content that could be used in an internal combustion engine without too much corrosive activity) and the other either on the steering wheel of her favourite vehicle or the controls of its weapon's system, she'd stomp out any perceived injustice and give conventional morality a few swift kicks to the groin.

It was 1988 when Tank Girl first saw the light of day. The world had only just survived eight years of Ronald Ray-guns and conservative Christianity's first kick at the can, and anybody else who was down on the ground hurting. By blaming society's woes on the poor they were able to stop spending money on pesky programs like school lunches and increase military spending in order to ensure American business interests around the world were safe from local government interference. Restoring pride in family values meant they were able to call HIV/AIDS the price of amoral behaviour - fags are only getting what's coming to them - and turning the clock back on any advances society had made on gender equality in the previous decade.

We were in desperate need of someone willing and able to give that world the collective finger followed by a boot up the arse and a grenade enema and Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett's creation was just what the doctor (if he was stoned out his head on weird cacti found only in the remoter parts of the Australian outback) ordered. Tank Girl, her somewhat faithful companion, Boga, the kangaroo, and various hangers on, partied, pillaged, rampaged, and generally behaved in ways that would make the average barbarian hoard green with envy, in adult comics, graphic novels, short stories, and one brief appearance on celluloid for a glorious seven or so years.
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Now, just in time for the festive season, the good folks at Titan Books have served up a heaping pile of steaming - uhmm - a celebratory coffee table book, The Cream Of Tank Girl, in honour of her thrusting herself upon the unsuspecting world of comics chest first twenty odd years ago. According to Messrs Hewlett & Martin "Tank Girl" came about by accident. Together with other art school classmates in 1987 they had self-published a twenty-eight page comic featuring the two strips they believed showed most promise as being their entrées into the glamourous world of comic books. As neither "Atomtan" or "Max Nasty" have become household names, and "Tank Girl" was a one page ad on page twenty for a comic they never planned on writing, it's obvious prescience wasn't one of their strong suits. However when the editor of Deadline magazine approached them for a strip featuring our heroine they showed they could be counted on to deliver the goods when it mattered and a legend was born.

As its a book you're meant to give pride of place to on your coffee table (which when you think about how many Tank Girl readers own coffee table let alone furniture not made out of orange crates you have to wonder about the minds in the marketing department at Titan Books) the primary focus is of course on illustrations. From full colour reproductions of comic book panels and front covers of Deadline that Tank Girl graced, story boards and design ideas for Tank Girl the movie, to black and white pen and ink drawings, The Cream Of Tank Girl doesn't disappoint in that department.

Over the years Tank Girl underwent various modifications in her appearance as Hewlett's illustrations became more sophisticated. Yet no matter what there has always remained that certain je ne sais quois about her that would shrivel the balls of miscreants to the size of an atom. For, although there is no denying her lasciviousness nature, or that she is built along the lines of super heroines designed by men who still live in their parent's basement where gravity and the laws of proportion don't exist, the glint in her eye - and her willingness to level small towns with her tank - are enough to make even the most testosterone laden idiot pause for thought. Of course there are always those who aren't that swift on the uptake and they find out that yes indeed those are rocket launchers attached to the side of her tank.
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As a bonus Hewlett & Martin have also included some of the other strips they have worked on, or attempted to put before the public eye. It's nice to see that Hewlett's talents stretch beyond drawing kangaroos with attitude, tanks, explosions, and Tank Girl as we are introduced to various other characters in their arsenals and a variety of strangeness that somehow has yet to have seen the light of day.

One thing that they make clear in the books is that as far as they are concerned the movie version of Tank Girl not only was awful, but ruined her for ever. Instead of being the parody of the over-endowed super heroine (no those aren't intercontinental ballistic missiles under her t-shirt) the movie softened the hard edges and pointy bits about the character we liked so much and diminished her by filling the movie with stupid locker room humour in an attempt to make it appeal to a mass audience. What the studio didn't realize is that most of "Tank Girl's" appeal was the fact that it wasn't for mass consumption and didn't play well in Peoria.

The Cream Of Tank Girl is a trip back in time to those innocent days when a girl and her tank could travel the outback in the company of her kangaroo boy friend content in the knowledge there were stupid people to terrorize and towns to blow up. If you missed out on the action the first time round, it will give you a taste of what you missed. For the seasoned traveller its a fitting memento from your misspent youth and one that just might make you question your judgement in selling out and taking that straight job.

As of May 2007 that time has come as she made her triumphant return in the Gifting and is now appearing on a regular basis in the British magazine Judge Dredd in a twelve part series, Skidmarks. Look for it to be made into a graphic novel next year around this time, as a new generation of illustrators, Rufus Dayglo and Ashley Wood, have set Tank Girl loose on the world again. Just when we need her most, after eight years of George Bush's social conservatism, Tank Girl is back to send the forces of decency back to the rat holes they came from.

November 3, 2008

Book Review: Nation By Terry Pratchett

When I think back on the version of history that I learned from attending school and from reading I can't decide which I find more amazing; the conceit of Europeans to believe that they were doing things first or that supposedly rational and intelligent people accepted those facts without question. Even as they traversed the globe discovering new people and evidence of ancient civilizations in countless places European explorers, and subsequently historians, remained unshakeable in their belief that nobody before them could have possibly been capable of doing the things they did.

Even in the twentieth century when Thor Heyerdahl was able to prove, by successfully recreating their voyages, that earlier cultures had accomplished many of those feats long before Europeans, people were, and are, still reluctant to accept that we weren't the first. Unfortunately quite a bit of that reluctance is based on the attitude that before contact with us, everybody were just savages who couldn't possibly have been sophisticated enough to build boats sturdy enough for ocean travel, let alone navigate them across the ocean and back again.

It was during the height of Britain's colonial rule in the 19th century that the term "White Man's Burden" was coined. The great burden that the Empire shouldered in those days was the task of bringing the light of "civilization" to all those poor misguided dark skinned people around the world. Of course you couldn't expect miracles, but it was at least hoped they could be taught English and to put pants on every so often, especially in mixed company.
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In his most recent release, and his first for young audiences, Nation, published by Harper Collins, Terry Practchett has not only created a wonderful tale of self discovery, he rebukes those histories of our childhood that had us believing nothing of importance happened before the white man appeared on the face of the earth. With a remote South Pacific archipelago as its location, and an alternate 19th century as the reality, Nation is the story of two young people from vastly different backgrounds thrown together by nature and what they experience together.

Mau was no longer a boy, as was proven by his having survived his time alone on Boy's Island. However instead of his heading home to the island home of his people for his celebration feast, the world had something far different in store for him. A tsunami wiped out the entire population of his island, destroying his whole nation, and leaving him entirely alone - or so he thinks. Unknown to him the storm that sent his people away brought him Ermintrude Fanshaw (the Honourable Miss) who is 139th in succession to the throne of England, via the ship Sweet Judy that the wave had picked up and planted on his home island.

While its true that Ermintrude, who would much rather be called Daphne thank you very much, must face up the fact that nothing in her previous life has prepared her for being stranded on a desert island, her plight is nothing compared to what Mau has to overcome. One of the first tasks he has to undertake upon his return to his home is burying all of his former friends and family by dragging their bodies into the sea and weighing them down with stones so they will sink. What kind of Gods are his that they would allow everyone to be killed? He wants nothing to do with any of them any more. In fact if not for Daphne he might have surrendered to death instead of having to cope with the sense of loss and betrayal.

As the days pass and the two young people establish their new home they begin teaching each other bits and pieces of their respective languages and how to survive. Once they are able to light a fire, other refugees start to trickle in attracted by the smoke and the knowledge that this island has always been favoured by the Gods. The newcomers are shocked by Mau's attitude of feeling betrayed by the Gods and come to think of him as a demon, At the same time though they can't help but respect him for his ability to find ways of taking care of them. Who else would think of attempting to milk a pig in order to feed a starving baby?
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However it falls to Daphne to discover the most amazing thing about the island and its history. She convinces Mau that he must uncover the "Grandfather's cave" where all the old warriors of the tribe were laid to rest. With the help of a crow bar that was part of the tool kit on the Sweet Judy they are able to roll back the the cap stone and aside from discovering the corpses of many generations of men, they discover a chamber depicting information and technology that the people had known about at one time. There's even a map of the heavens showing various planets marked out in glass and gold on the ceiling.

As far as Daphne is concerned the chamber of the ancestors proves that at one time the people of Mau's nation had been great seafarers and had travelled around the world long before any other people. It's this discovery that she uses when the inevitable happens and she is "rescued", to convince her father that Mau's island should be left alone and deserves not to conscripted into the British Empire. Unfortunately, along with her rescue comes a return to reality, and the realization that the two friend must separate as Daphne is needed back in her old life, as much as the island needs Mau.

Nation by Terry Pratchett is a wonderful book for many reasons but what I found to be most compelling was the way in which he brings to life the changes that each of his two main characters goes through. Not only does it make for a more interesting story that way, as it maintains our interest in Mau and Daphne far more than is usual in a book written for young people, but it also serves as an example to those reading of the benefits of being open to new ideas.

The idea that this supposedly primitive island nation had at one time travelled the world is not at all far fetched, as it has already been proven that many of the Polynesian and South Pacific nations had at one time been great sea farers. By making this a key element of the story Pratchett is opening his reader's eyes to the fact that Europeans were not the first great explorers of the world and that we need to be careful in making judgements on a people simply because they dress and look different than we do. Unlike so many writers though, Pratchett has incorporated this "lesson" so thoroughly into the story that you never feel like you are being preached at or being told how to think. Rather he carefully builds his arguments by allowing us to see everything through the eyes of his characters. It's their reactions to circumstances, the thought process they go through to form their opinions, that gives the reader the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the world.

Of course no Pratchett book is complete without humour, and Nation is no exception. However there is also a level of sadness to the work as it becomes obvious that Daphne and Mau are becoming very close, and equally obvious that they will not be able to be together. There's a beautiful little afterward to the book, which genuinely brought a tear to my eye, something I'd not expected from either a book by Terry Pratchett or one written for young people.

Nation by Terry Pratchett may be nominally a book for young people, but it is a tale that will bring pleasure to people of all ages. Intelligent, entertaining, and a little sad, Nation might make you think at times, but it will never bore you. It's too bad we couldn't receive more of our education through books like this.

October 10, 2008

Book Review: The Vault Of Deeds By James Barclay

There's nothing quite like a hero is there, those great defenders of virtue and so forth. Steely eyed in battle, firm of sinew, and pure of heart, they've strode through the world's literature before we even had writing. Whether it was Homer spinning his tales around the fire side for his fellow Greeks or Valmiki reciting verse after verse in praise of Rama for future generations of Indians to recite hasn't mattered. Heroes puff up our vision of ourselves as a people as they are the epitomes of all that we hold to be virtuous. In the same token they are useful for propagating a specific way of being and establishing and enforcing the character traits that a society considers attractive.

However where would the hero be without his scribe? Would we have even heard of Achilles and his buddies' attempt to take Troy if it weren't for Homer? When the Vikings used to set out upon their raids into foreign waters they were always accompanied by at least one poet or bard who could recreate the heroic deeds carried out by his countrymen as they raped, pillaged, and looted their way through coastal Europe and the British Isles. What was the good of performing deeds of great valour if they weren't going to be properly appreciated after all? Yet haven't you ever wondered about the relationship between scribe and hero? There's something almost symbiotic about it, as they each depend upon the other for ensuring their places in the annals of history and the pages of literature.

Its this relationship that is deconstructed in The Vault Of Deeds, a new novella by British author James Barclay, just released by the British independent small press PS Publishing. Barclay first made a name for himself through the publication of the six part series, soon to be seven, covering the exploits of the heroic mercenary company known as The Raven. While he never used the flowery prose of the romantic writers from the late 19th centuries, and his heroes were not necessarily men and women a good son or daughter would take home to meet their parents, the member of the Raven did possess heroic characteristics. Brave, resourceful, somewhat noble, and if not always completely pure of heart and innocent of evil influence, at least their intentions were always for the best as they fought both human and inhuman enemies in defence of their homeland and what they believed to be justice.
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So it's only fitting that Barclay has written this farcical satire on the connection between the hero and his scribe, and vice-versa. Something is going terribly wrong in the blessed kingdom of Goedterre. One after another all the great heroes are being defeated in battle by the forces of evil. Helpless scribes are forced to sit idly by while, instead of recording their hero's eloquent words as they vanquish another demon from the pits of hell to the abyss, they watch them cut down in mid sentence. A feeling of unease and disquiet has come over the now unemployed scribes of the best Hero (H.E.R.O. = Hideous Evil Routinely Overcome) school in all the land. Fully forty-seven heroes have suffered consecutive defeats, the worst record since the dark ages.

However of all the currently unemployed scribes only Grincheux is willing to risk his flesh to find out why the best of best are dropping like flies on the fields of battle and the forces of evil are marching virtually unopposed unto their fair land. Unfortunately there is a reason his fellow scribes are hesitant about even beginning to formulate plans for looking into the reason behind all the recent defeats. Any thought that a scribe has that can be construed as pertaining to heroic deeds or adventures is recorded in draft form in the Vault of Deeds in preparation to the scribe adding the finishing touches upon the completion of a campaign. Although scribes are usually considered sacrosanct and are never harmed on the field of battle, accidents have been known to happen. So a process that allows a rough draft that could in theory be finished off by any other scribe was deemed an essential safe guard.

While those in training for heroism are learning essentials like how to swing their battle axe and proper heroic utterance, scribes are taught how to formulate their thoughts to ensure posterity gets the best possible read. As part of that process whenever they begin to think in terms of plot and action, their book in the Vault of Deeds immediately begins to render a draft form for the potential adventure. With the Vault inexplicably off limits to the scribes all of a sudden, there is the real threat that if there is something foul in the state of Goedterre, those behind it can keep an eye on any scribe nosey enough to start poking around simply by seeing what they're writing about.
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Already one of their number's book had been brutally closed by his untimely demise, and everyone else is of the firm mind that heroism is best left to those who went to school to become heroes. The trouble is that recent crop of students at the hero school just aren't what anybody under most circumstances would ever consider hero material. So it comes down to Grincheux and his newly assigned hero(ine), Cassandra the Swiftblade, to take the afternoon before committing to the field of battle to nose around the school to see if they can uncover what's gone wrong. What they discover is even more base a betrayal than either could have believed possible. In the catacombs beneath the school a pit has appeared in which the forces of evil are being taught the secrets of Heroism and how to defeat the champions of good in battle.

While I've always enjoyed Barclay's work prior to this, nothing in any of his earlier works had indicated he had such a flair for the ridiculous. He has done a brilliant job of standing the whole hero genre on its head using elements of farce and satire to make his point. While some of the humour is as broad as a barn door - the extravagant language has to be seen and read to be believed, at other time he hones his wit to a point that cuts deeper than any weapons wielded by fiend and hero alike. Conventions are manipulated as easily as a child's building blocks revealing just how flimsy the whole notion of a hero really is. For what is a hero anyway if not a construct of the writer, and in this world the heroes are trained to spout the words that heroes always declaim so that their scribes can record it as deathless prose.

It is those very conventions that the minions of evil are able to exploit to ensure the speedy dispatch of the forces of good. In their classes the evil ones are taught that heroes talk too much, and that just before they deliver a killing blow they will always, without exception, deliver a speech describing their great victory so the scribe can record it. By shaming defeat and awaiting their moment the villains are bisecting and dissecting heroes during what should be their moment of triumph - cutting their speeches short by abbreviating their stature.

Unlike other writers who might have tried to stretch the joke too thin by writing a full length novel, Barclay has wisely chosen to stick with a novella, and because of that The Vault Of Deeds never becomes tiresome or just silly. (Although there are wonderful moments of rampant silliness) For anybody who has ever struggled through the turgid writings of the 19th century Romantics, or the florid prose of lessor sword and sorcery writers - this will be a balm for any wounds they might have left upon your literary soul. In the past Barclay has proven his mastery of both sword and sorcery and epic fantasy, he can now add comedy to his list of achievements as a writer. After reading Vault Of Deeds you'll never look upon heroic fantasy in quite the same way again.

July 25, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: The Book Of Leviathan Peter Blevgad

I've always thought comics never get the recognition they deserve. They are either looked down on as being less than the plain written word, as if the inclusion of pictures somehow reduces their value, or they are elevated beyond their worth by those too embarrassed to admit that they enjoy them just for the pleasure they bring. The next time I have to listen to someone talking about the deep psychological and social significance of The X-Men or whichever comic they obsess over, I'll probably gag. Why is it so difficult to admit that you can enjoy comics just for the sake of enjoying a comic?

The majority of comics that you buy either in book form or read in your daily newspaper are simple escapist fun. Whether it's the gentle humour of Charles Schutz's Peanuts gang or the fantasy world of some superhero, the pleasure derived from most comics is immediate and transitory. This is especially true of the daily strips in the paper. You start in the first panel and two or three panels later you're left with a smile on your face or some other similar feeling of contentment. Even the political strips, like Doonesbury or Minimum Security, work along the same basic premise, although they do have more to do with reality than most.

Of course that doesn't mean that all comic strips are created equal or that there aren't some cartoonists whose work takes the medium into places where very few others dare to go. Unfortunately you're not likely to find their work nestled in among the daily funnies offered by your local newspaper as it isn't what most people would want to quickly scan during their morning commute to work. Occasionally one or two of them will make there way into the pages of some speciality magazines, but most of the time you need to wait for a compilation of their work to appear as a book in order to experience them.
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At least that was the case for me when it came to Peter Blegved and his creation Leviathan as I was unfamiliar with it until reading it between the covers of The Book Of Leviathan. Mr. Blegved is a man of many talents, as can be seen by a visit to Amateur Enterprises where some of his other work has been collected. A musician in bands such as Henry Cow and Slapp Happy in the seventies and eighties, he started drawing Leviathan in 1992 and it appeared in the British newspaper Independent on Sundays through to 1998. Now The Overlook Press has gathered together those Sunday oddities into the above book, and will be unleashing it unto an unsuspecting public on July 29th/08.

Like all good comics Leviathan concerns the adventures of a boy, Levi, and his pet. Although in this case the boy is a faceless baby and the pet is a rather insightful and cynical cat, and the adventures tend towards the metaphysical rather than the physical. Although there are occasional references made to Levi's lack of features - meeting a race of people whose head's are noses, Levi's inquiry as to how he smells is answered with "Not very well without a nose" - for the most part it doesn't seem to hinder his ability to experience the world around him. From the trauma of that first separation from the parents - being left at home with the baby sitter for the first time - a trip into hell courtesy of B.L.Z. Bub, Lord of the Fleas, to Levi's valiant attempts to break out of the last panel of the strip to connect directly with his readers, he is able to negotiate most of the obstacles that the world places in his path.

Of course Levi's also slightly better prepared than most of us, as if nature has gifted him with certain abilities in lieu of those he's lost. First there's his inquisitive and inventive mind that allows him to device such things as the atomic formula for the transmutation of base matter into milk, or to imagine the mirror opposite of himself and his stuffed bunny. Of course the anti-bunny might not be to everyone's liking. For according to the strip's guest host for the day, Hegel, the father of dialectical logic, instead of being soft, cuddly, safe, stuffed and inanimate, it would be alive, hard, lethal, and hungry. Sometimes you don't want to open the door when your imagination comes knocking.

Like so many comics a lot of the humour and a great deal of the impact in Leviathan is a result of the illustrations. Blegvad is not only able to do wonderful things with a bare minimum of lines, he can also draw beautifully ornate pieces that are eloquently humorous without ever taking themselves too seriously. Even when he introduces a figure like Hegel, or an iconic image from the art world like Edvard Munch's The Scream, it's with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Sometimes it feels like that by introducing these elements in ridiculous circumstances, he is reminding the reader that they are reading a comic and not to take it too seriously.

Although, I think a man who manages to make some of the worse puns in the world out of eels and cheesy song lyrics - "What's that?" -"When the Moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that's a Moray" - probably doesn't have to worry too much about being taken too seriously. That's not to say there aren't moments in some of the strips which won't make you stop and think. You can't deal in the absurd as much as Peter Blegvad does without opening up one or two cans of worms about human behaviour. However, most of your wondering when it comes to the adventures of Levi and Cat will be about what type of brain could have come up with such absurdities, and not about the state of the world.

While some might wonder at the value of escapism that a comic like Leviathan offers, as it says in the preface to the book, only a jailer would consider the term "escapist" pejorative. Anyway, The Book Of Leviathan isn't what anyone would consider your typical mindless escapism. Absurd, strange, and even a little twisted certainly, but always thoughtful and never simple, one thing is for sure; the adventures of Levi and Cat are never boring.

In Canada The Book Of Leviathan is available either directly from it's distributor Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

July 16, 2008

Book Review: The Last Of The Angels Fadhil al-Azzawi

Satire is a delicate matter, or at least it should be. Far too often satire seems to be confused with farce for some reason, which is sort of like confusing a chain saw with the delicate touch of a surgeon's scalpel. It's true that both will cut close to the bone, but while farce will leave a great big gapping hole making it obvious what's going on, satire will barely mark the skin on its way to leaving its barb behind. While farce has nothing to do with reality, satire presents such a mirror image of the topic being skewered that at times it's difficult to tell them apart.

Satire can be funny, but is not necessarily so, it's just as easy to weep as to laugh at the foibles of our society. The good satirist can take an idea that's totally outrageous and make it seem reasonable. The satirist's target are the self-important, the holier than thou, blind obedience, and ignorance posing as wisdom. Is it any wonder that satirists tend not to be popular among those who depend on the manipulation of the masses for their position and that the more autocratic a society the more chance they have of ending up in jail.

Such was the case with Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi who spent three years in jail during the 1970's before being released and leaving Iraq for Germany in 1977 where he still lives today. A poet, novelist, and short story writer, Fadhil's fiction is just now being translated into English. If The Last Of The Angels, being published in Canada on July 22nd/08 by Simon & Schuster Canada is indicative of the overall quality of his work we have a lot to look forward to. (For those who are interested I came across a couple of web sites where some of his poetry has been posted, Contemporary Arab Poetry and Jehat.com, which will give you a good idea of the man's quality as a writer.)
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Before the Americans were sucking the oil from Iraq the British were there. After "liberating" the Arab world from the clutches of the Ottoman Empire in WW 1 they were still holding on to their grip on the oil industry in Iraq in the early 1950's. In The Last Of The Angels the English owned Iraq Oil Company is the biggest employee in the city of Kirkuk and the people of the poverty stricken Chuqor community are especially dependant on the company's largeness for survival. So when Hameed Nylon loses his job as chauffeur (and gained the unfortunate second name as well) for the British boss's wife (his job had to been to drive her to her various assignations with lovers and thinking it only fair he be given a piece of the action, offered her a pair of nylons in exchange for a roll in the hay - hence the firing and the new name) the financial consequences were potentially dire.

After a demonstration protesting his unfair dismissal organized by the women of the community, the English woman was obviously a whore after all, results in the relief of a drought, Hameed's status in the community rises. Given his new stature he decides that he should emulate Chairman Mao and organize a peasants rebellion. Based on readings he knows it has to be a spontaneous expression of outrage by the oppressed against their overlords, and that it has to begin in the countryside, away from the corrupting influence of the city. If there was only some incident around which he could he arrange a spontaneous outburst of outrage.

When the Oil company's plan to build a road through the town's cemetery is announced, it sends the whole community into an uproar. It is decided to send a delegation from the town to appeal to the King to protect the sanctity of the dead. Among those included in the delegation are Hameed and his brother in law Khidir Musa. Khidir had gained notoriety for having gone to Russia in search of his two brothers who had been taken prisoner at the end of WW 1 and not been seen since. Everyone had dismissed Khidr's plan as craziness until one day he and his two brothers landed in Kirkuk in a Zeppelin. Even the King himself came to see the famous brothers, he was so captivated by the story.

So Khidir was an obvious choice to be included in the delegation - if anyone had the King's ear it was him. Unfortunately the King was nothing more than a figure head, and while the delegation was in Baghdad the situation in Kirkuk had exploded. The municipal workers had been told to remove their machines from the site in an attempt to diffuse the crisis, but when they started their engines it looked like they were advancing on the cemetery. The ensuing riot created a martyr out of the least unlikely of candidates, but by the end of the day there were enough witnesses willing to testify that not only was he a hero (he was shot while passed out drunk in a chair in front of his barber shop) that he actually ascended into heaven on the back of Buraq - the horse that had carried the prophet when he ascended into the seven heavens - that there could be no contradicting his status.

That's only the tiniest sample of the flavour that you can expect from Fadhil al-Azzawi's The Last Of The Angels as Iraq descends into the anarchy of revolution and coup after coup. Yet it's not only bitter irony, as amidst the stupidity and mass hysteria described in the pages of the book, moments of sublime beauty are salted like beautiful gems gleaming amongst piles of dung. While he ridicules the blind faith of the zealous and the greed of the ambitious, he also depicts the real beauty of belief, the sanctity of compassion, and the sacredness of genuine sorrow.

Like the best of the South American writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, al-Azzawi has created a world that straddles the real and the magical. It's a world where a young boy can open a box found hidden in a dusty room and find himself in conversation with three angels, and death assumes mortal guise to walk amongst the people of Kirkuk. Don't worry though he's not neglecting his duties, as he carries his ledger with him at all times and is keeping his records as meticulously as ever.

Like a painter balancing the colours on a canvass, Fadhil al-Azzawi's touch is so deft that we move between the mundane and the sublime almost without noticing the transition. Humanity, he seems to be saying, is equally capable of ascending the heights as we are of descending into the foulest pits, and the difference in the path leading to one or the other is so slight as to be almost indistinguishable. The Last Of The Angels is a beautiful book that does the seemingly impossible of holding humans up to ridicule while exalting their potential simultaneously.

You can purchase a copy of The Last Of The Angels directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

June 19, 2008

Book Review: Outrageous Fortune Tim Scott

There's a type of British comedy that when done well combines all the best attributes of farce, theatre of the absurd, and their own Pantomime tradition. Comedy troupes like Monty Python's Flying Circus and Beyond The Fringe were great examples of how this translated into sketch comedy for television, stage, and film. In fiction the best known example of this style was the late Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series.

While the sketch comedy routines of television and radio didn't need to worry excessively about plot or even a narrative line, and could routinely go off like small bombs of comic excess with no worries about what would come next, Douglas Adams didn't have that luxury. Whether in its first incarnation as a BBC radio show, as a television series, or a sequence of novels, his Hitchhiker's Guide would not have worked without having its various plot lines and sub plots to guide its seemingly unconnected random moments of silliness.

It's a difficult path to navigate, balancing lunacy with the needs of a full length novel, and there aren't many writers who seem capable of carrying it off. One need look no further than Tim Scott's first novel, Outrageous Fortune, published by Random House Canada for proof that merely being funny doesn't make for a good novel. Like Adams, Tim Scott began his career with the BBC, appearing in the sketch comedy show, And Now In Colour under the name of Tim de Jongh, before continuing on to writing and directing successful children's shows.
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Unlike Adams though Scott does not appear to have understood what is necessary to make a good novel. While there is no denying he has a keen sense of the absurd, and even shows some flashes of genuine insight into human nature, his inability to tie together the bits and pieces that he's written into a coherent shape results in a novel that doesn't so much finish but peters out in the end.

Set some time in the future, Outrageous Fortune follows the misadventures of Jonny X as a particularly bad day turns into a particularly bad couple of weeks. After coming home from his job as very successful dream manufacturer he finds that his house has been stolen. Not robbed, but the whole structure had been shrunk down to a hundredth of its size and whisked away to be sold in all probability on the housing black market. Adding insult to injury the thieves had left a business card in place of Jonny's house emblazoned with the words "Don't you hate it when this happens'? and a 1-800 number with final seven digits spelling out AARRGHH.

If that isn't bad enough Jonny has the dim recollection of having a really nasty argument with his girlfriend the night before, but finds that he can't quite bring all the details to mind - in fact can't remember a bloody thing about it. Needless to say that doesn't put him in the most receptive frame of mind when an encyclopedia salesperson descends on him from a helicopter and does her best to convince him that what he needs most of all at this point in his life is a complete set. She's not even phased when he points out to her that he no longer has a house to keep the books in. All things considered it's not surprising that Jonny decides getting a drink takes priority over going into work right at that moment and heads off to his favourite bar.

Now the world has changed quite a bit from the earth you and I are familiar with, especially when it comes to local government and means of transportation. Its in the creation of the new society that Scott shows real imaginative flare, and a highly developed sense of the absurd. While there is still an elected government, they are nothing more than a figure head as all real power now resides in the hands of music companies. Instead of wards or districts as cities are divided up in our time, they are now split into areas defined by musical genres.

Each genre is set up as an independent fiefdom with its own rules and regulations. So those living in Classical music obviously have different values and by-laws to adhere to than those who reside in Punk or Rave. Of course if your tastes change you might find things a little uncomfortable until you're able to arrange a move. Still the system works out quite well, as it does ensure that like minded people do end up living with each other, and you don't run into awkward situations of having neighbours blasting their Christmas novelty singles while you're getting heavily into the latest trance/ambient atmospheric creation.

All ground transportation is now done via motorcycle, and the roads that criss-cross throughout the city are each area's responsibility to maintain. While they are allowed to set their own bylaws in terms of speed and noise, the overall control of the roadways are controlled by a quasi-military force called the Zone Traffic Police. This force not only enforces traffic violations, they also seem to have taken it upon themselves to adjudicate any other matters they feel like. When Jonny runs afoul of them, it allows Scott to create a Kafkesque situation of wrongful accusation that starts out promisingly enough, but unfortunately is allowed to continue until absurdity becomes tedium, and you want the story to move along.

This is pretty much where the book falls flat over and over again as far too many times situations are allowed to drag on far past the point of being humorous. In many ways they are like ill conceived skits in a sketch comedy show where the attempt to turn a joke into a scene falls flat through lack of thinking it through all the way. In fact this is exactly the problem with Outrageous Fortune - it feels like a series of unconnected, somewhat ill conceived skits, that are occasionally funny, but don't seem to go anywhere in the end. Scott does make an effort to tie all the threads together in the final chapters, and although he provides a probable solution given the world he has created, it feels very anti-climatic.

While Tim Scott shows that he has a keen sense of the absurd, and can be very funny at times, Outrageous Fortune lacks the through line required by a novel. Outrageous Fortune offers conclusive proof of that it takes more than a collection of funny bits to make a novel.

For those wishing to pick up a copy of Outrageous Fortune you can order a copy directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

May 11, 2008

Book Review: Lonely Werewolf Girl Martin Millar

Werewolves always seem to get the short end of the stick. When it comes to the undead it's always Vampires who get all the attention. Everybody considers them so sexy and cool with their pasty white complexions and unusually good fashion sense. Vampires always seem to be portrayed as having money, living in fancy castles in exotic locals, and, of course, getting their choice of buxom mortals to snack on.

More often than not when you meet a werewolf for the first time in a story or movie you're not left with a favourable impression as they're usually ripping someone's throat out. They never get to wear fancy clothes in the movies, partly due I suppose to the tendency for clothing to suffer during their transformation from human to wolf. (There is some debate as to what happens to a werewolf's clothes after they change from human to wolf, and more specifically what they do about their clothing situation when they convert back to being a human). Then there' the whole bestial thing - there's just no talking to them when they change into their wolf selves.

So it can't be an easy life being a werewolf in the first place, but can you image what it must be like if you were a teenaged werewolf, filled with all the usual adolescent angst, and being outlawed by your family? Well that's the situation that seventeen year old Kalix MacRinnalck finds herself in as the heroine of Martin Millar's The Lonely Werewolf Girl, published by Soft Skull Press, and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada
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In a fit of anger young Kalix attacked and almost killed her father, the Thane of the MacRinnalck clan, and for that crime had to flee the families ancestral home in Scotland and seek shelter in the mean streets of London. In spite of her tender years, and being skinny to the point of emaciation as a human, Kalix is a fearsomely powerful werewolf when the battle rage takes her. She was born during a full moon when werewolves are unable to resist the change so she and her mother were both in their werewolf forms. The majority of werewolves are born as humans, so when Kalix changes into her werewolf form she becomes twice as fierce and powerful as kinsman double her size.

All things considered this is a good thing, because not only has she been outlawed by the family, but the clan's ruling council has demanded she be brought back to stand trial for nearly killing her father. Some of them aren't too fussy about what shape she shows up in for the trial; in fact some, like her eldest brother Sarapen, would be happy if only her heart were to show up for the trial. All of which means is that Kalix finds herself having to be continually on her guard against being captured or killed by minions of the family's various factions. Her circumstances are complicated even further by the fact that she is so filled with self-loathing that she's not only anorexic as a human but has developed a taste, well more an addiction, for laudanum.

Not eating for days on end, and taking a very powerful opium derivative on a frequent basis can leave one's resources rather drained. Which is how Kalix ends up being sheltered by two human teenagers, Daniel and Moonglow. Daniel accidentally saves Kalix from one of her brother's more reprehensible minions, and she is so weakened by lack of food and drugs she is unable to resist when Moonglow decides that Kalix only needs some understanding and compassion to feel good about herself again.

Of course Daniel and Moonglow might live to regret, if they live, getting involved with the scion of the MacRinnalch clan as all of sudden they are drawn into a world inhabited by more than just depressed teenage werewolves. First of all there's the rest of Kalix's immediate family, which aside from her previously mentioned eldest brother includes her mother, The Mistress of the Werewolves and matriarch of the clan; her sister Thrix who wants as little to do with the family as possible so she can concentrate on her career as a fashion designer; her other brother Markus who has a thing for women's clothing; and the cousins Beauty and Delicious who fancy themselves as rock and roll stars but haven't been sober enough in a couple of years to play a note.

On top of that are the various minions of all the parties involved, werewolf hunters armed with guns that fire silver bullets, and Thrix's main client, Mallveria, Queen of the Hiyasta, a race of fire elementals from another dimension, who has become addicted to human fashions. It's bad enough when they all start showing up at, or in the vicinity of Daniel and Moonglow's small flat in Kensington, but things get really chaotic when the Thane dies as a result of the injuries he sustained from Kalix's attack on him, and the MacRinnalch clan descends into civil war as both Markus and Sarapen claim the throne.

It is safe to say that there probably hasn't been as funny, or weird, a werewolf story written as Lonely Werewolf Girl. One moment there's a ferocious battle raging with werewolves ripping each other's throats out, and the next we're in the midst of a fashion crises. Mallveria has discovered that her deadly rival in the fire elemental realm has been stealing all of Thrix's designs and showing up wearing the same outfits. It's a toss up as to who is the more deadly - Sarapen in his quest to become the new Thane of the clan or Mallveria in her desire to be the belle of the ball and see her rival burn, quite literally, with jealousy at the glory of her outfits.

Along the way Martin Millar also manages to tell the story of how Kalix goes from being a lonely werewolf girl so filled with self loathing that she cuts herself and suffers anxiety attacks if she's treated well, to a werewolf girl with friends who make her realize that she's not such a bad sort after all. By turn hysterically funny, terrifying, and even a little heartbreaking, Lonely Werewolf Girl is a brilliantly designed and elegantly written book. What makes it even more remarkable is that in spite of the inanity of some situations and its fantastical elements, it also happens to be a very real book in its treatment of Kalix's problems.

She doesn't magically become a well adjusted werewolf teenager filled with joie de vivre. Instead she has to face up to her internal demons in the same way any other person dealing with her problems would, through hard work and lots of soul searching. In fact all of the characters in the book are drawn with a equal amount of depth. It would have been easy for Millar to make someone like Mallveria for instance nothing more than a caricature of a fashion slave. Yet he takes the time to make her a multi dimensional character who becomes more interesting as we get to know her.

Lonely Werewolf Girl has a lightness of tone that makes it a delight to read, but that never diminishes its characters or trivializes issues of importance. It's one of those rare books that make you laugh and think all at the same time, and feel better for having read it.

March 31, 2008

Interview: Stephanie McMillan Creator Of Minimum Security

Last winter I received my first introduction to the people that inhabit Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security when I reviewed her collaborative effort with writer Derrick Jensen As The World Burns: Fifty Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial and found my first cartoon hero since Snoopy - Bunnista. What's not to love; with that cute little X instead of an eye - a memento from having survived an animal testing facility- his cute little arms, his grenade launcher, and his great do it yourself attitude. Bunnista isn't one for sitting around waiting for somebody else to make a statement about things - nope he'll be right there with as many explosives as he can cobble together and let the world know what's what.

After that introduction I wanted more and discovered that an anthology of Stephanie's work had been published under the title of Attitude: Featuring Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security and discovered just how good she was at being a cartoonist and not being afraid to speak her mind. Now it just so happens that I agree with just about everything she has to say about the mess that the world is in and what really needs to be done to even start making amends. As far as I'm concerned it's one of the few places in the mass media where you can be guaranteed reading the truth on a regular basis.

Wanting to learn a little bit more about the person responsible for what is now my favourite comic strip I contacted Stephanie about doing an interview. The upshot was that I sent her a handful of questions and she sent me back the answers that you can read below. In addition to the answers, Stephanie also sent me the following handy biography that will give you all sorts of information about her.
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Stephanie McMillan was born in Fort Lauderdale, FL where she still lives. she earned a BFA in 1987 in film (with a focus on animation) at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Her cartoon, Minimum Security, is syndicated online by United Media and appears five times per week at Comics.com
Since 1992, her cartoons have been published in dozens of print and online publications including Z Magazine, Monday Magazine (Canada), Clamor, City Link (South Florida), Megh Barta (Bangladesh), Al Eqtisadiah (Saudi Arabia), Asheville Global Report, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Casseurs de Pub (France), Working for Change, New Standard News, Tribuno del Pueblo, American Libraries, Comic Relief, and Anchorage Press.

Stephanie is the illustrator and co-author, with writer Derrick Jensen, of a new graphic novel about the global environmental crisis, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, (Seven Stories Press, 2007, 225 pages).

A collection of her cartoons, Attitude Presents Minimum Security was published in 2005, edited and with a foreword by Ted Rall. Her work is also included in Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists (2002), as well as in various textbooks and several books in the Opposing Viewpoints series by Gale Publishing Group. Her cartoons have been included in exhibits at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (New York), the San Francisco Comic Art Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), and the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, DC), among other venues.

She is a member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, as well as a founding member of Cartoonists With Attitude, a group of ground-breaking social commentary and political cartoonists formed in 2006, many of whom appear in NBM Publishing’s Attitude series of books edited by Ted Rall. You can find out all sort of other things about Stephanie at her web site if you want, but for now here's the interview. See you at the end of the ride.

When did you first start drawing, and was there anything that you remember in particular that got you started

Stephanie: I’ve loved drawing since I was a little kid. I remember bringing drawings home from pre-school and proudly showing them to my dad, who pointed out that hands and feet only have five fingers and toes each, respectively, and not the ten or twenty lines I drew radiating out from each limb.

What was it that made you decide that you wanted to draw cartoons - what is about that medium that appealed to you?

Stephanie: In fourth grade I fell in love with Peanuts and decided to become a cartoonist. Their personalities fascinated me -- the deep melancholy of Charlie Brown, and the defiant independence of Snoopy. I always marvelled at how Schulz was able to create distinct, subtle expressions with such economy of line, how just a couple of dots and curves could effectively convey worry or exasperation. By copying Peanuts at that age, I learned how to draw facial expressions. I think my characters still owe a lot to that early influence.

You have very strong opinions on social/political issues, how did they evolve?

Stephanie: At about age 12 I realized that I’d been too young to understand or participate in the social justice and anti-imperialist movements of the late 1960s. Growing up in the subsequent period of political stagnation, it frustrated me a lot that I’d missed that important and exciting time. I spent many hours as a teenager daydreaming about starting a commune, and thinking about what a fair society would look like. When I was a senior in high school, an older relative gave me the book Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell, which made me (unwillingly) think about -- and fear -- the possibility of nuclear war. I started writing about it for the school paper, and going to meetings of liberal anti-nuke groups.

I immediately realized that the actions they recommended – writing letters to local papers and politicians – were a useless waste of time. I didn’t know what else to do though, until outside one of these meetings I met a communist who talked to me about revolution. I was astounded and thrilled – the idea of revolution hadn’t ever occurred to me. I’d thought it was a relic of the long-distant past, and here was someone telling me we could do it too. I jumped right in.

When did you make the decision to combine the two; politics and cartooning?

Stephanie: I went to film school, where I studied animation, because it was very important to my parents that I get a college degree, but already my heart was in political action. I spent my twenties as an activist, and rejected the idea of being an artist. It felt frivolous to draw funny pictures when the revolutionary movement was so small and fragile and needed every ounce of energy we could give it. Instead I took a series of crummy jobs (warehouses, factories, retail shops) to keep me alive so I could do my real work as an organizer. I worked to defend abortion clinics from Operation Rescue, worked against the detention of immigrants, against Star Wars and other cold-war moves by the US, against police brutality, and on a lot of other issues. What I wanted was to help take these struggles out of the realm of loyal opposition, and tie them into a movement that recognized the whole capitalist system as the underlying problem.

After about 15 years of this, the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle revealed that a healthy and vibrant opposition movement had developed, and I felt that it was ethically okay for me to stop being an organizer (other people were doing it far more effectively), and do what I’d always wanted to do, create art as my way of exposing and opposing the system. So I started drawing cartoons.

Initially you started out by doing the single box cartoons, and now you do a recurring strip - how did that progression come about?

Stephanie: At first they were actually multi-panel vertical rectangles, pretty wordy and elaborate. Stylistically I was influenced by the cartoonists I admired: among them Ted Rall, Ruben Bolling, Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. After a few years of that, I switched to single-panel political cartoons because I thought they’d be easier to place in papers. Then after the US attacked Iraq, in spite of millions of people all over the world protesting the moves toward war, I became so depressed that I stopped drawing altogether for about nine months.

Eventually I understood that it’s not acceptable to surrender or give up, and I picked it up again in the form of a character-based strip. I chose that form with the idea that it would be more effective to present political points using ongoing characters whom readers might identify with, and stories that would be more compelling to follow in an ongoing way.

You've created four very distinct human characters for Minimum Security , and one very angry rabbit - where did you draw your inspiration for them from? Any friends or family to
be found amongst them in some shape or form?

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Stephanie: They’re all mixed up and combined from parts of myself and people in my life. Nikko, for example, was initially inspired by my brother Nick, whom I love to tease for the TV programs he likes (Nick is much smarter though, and cuter). His sister Kranti and I share a few personality traits (only the positive ones! Ahem. I’m not NEARLY that cranky...and I do wear clothes). I have a good-hearted friend who’s a little silly like Bananabelle, and the name Bananabelle came from my cousin’s pet sheep. Javier’s name came from an activist I’ve admired, who started a community garden. There are even parts of myself in Bunnista... or rather, there would be if I had more guts.

Creating a daily comic strip must be difficult - what's your process for working on the series - writing a whole bunch of strips in advance - like the Celebrity Dodge Ball sequence for instance did you sit down over the space of a few days and power through it, or do you only work a few days in advance of your deadline?

Stephanie: Though it can vary somewhat, in a typical week I write five comics on Monday or Tuesday, draw them on Saturday and color them on Sunday. The hardest part is the writing, and I don’t typically get very far ahead. I often sit at the blank page, agonizing over what should happen and how to possibly make it funny, with a growing dread that the clock’s running out. With longer sequences, I usually have a general sense of what will happen, but don’t actually write them out until the week I draw them. They run the week after they’re finished.

Which comes fist the dialogue or the illustration? Or is it simultaneous?

Stephanie: I write out the scripts first. One of the best bits of advice from an editor I ever got was many years ago, and it was this: write everything that absolutely must be in the cartoon ... then cross out half the words. They turn out much better when I remember to do that.

It's probably safe to say that Minimum Security is socially relevant and politically opinionated - where do you find your inspiration?

Stephanie: Oh my gosh, everywhere. The entire planet and pretty much every form of life on it is being killed right now by industrial capitalism. The need to stop that from happening is tremendously urgent. There’s a lot to be upset about and to address: the imperialist wars and the relentless determination of the US empire to expand, conquer and destroy. The exploitative nature of this global economic system, where a few live on the backs of the many, and suffering is considered normal. The unfathomable levels of pollution that are driving extinct 200 species a day, and making us all sick.

Have there been any cartoonists, artists, or people in general who you would say have influenced your work, and shaped your thinking the most?

Stephanie: Sure, so many. I find artists of many genres very inspiring visually. Some of my favourites are great cartoonists like Bill Watterson, Winsor McCay, Gahan Wilson, and the others I’ve mentioned, political artists like John Heartfield and George Grosz, pop artists like Keith Haring and Yoshitomo Nara, and folk art from Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. I’ve benefited from reading a broad range of thinkers and writers, including Howard Zinn, Chellis Glendinning, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Jerry Mander, Wallace Shawn, Krishnamurti, Vandana Shiva, and Derrick Jensen.

As The World Burns was a collaboration with Derrick Jensen - how did that work. Obviously you supplied the artwork, but did he write the story and dialogue and then you created the illustrations - or did he give your a narration and you created dialogue and visuals that complimented it.

Stephanie: That was a fun, great process! We talked a lot throughout about how the story should go, and he’d send each part to me as he’d write it. He wrote it mostly in the form of dialogue, with some description. I wrote a few parts as well. At first I tried to keep up with drawing each section as I received it, but I quickly lost ground and it took me a few months to finish the drawings after he’d finished the writing.

You don't mince any words in your comics and are usually very direct in your opinions. Have you experienced any problems because of that, and how's the reaction to your strip been in general?

Stephanie: People usually either really like it or really hate it. Many readers have said that it expresses things that they’ve thought about or felt, and that they found it validating or strengthening. That sort of response is actually the reason I draw – I want to help expose the hypocrisy and false claims of the system, and encourage resistance to it.

I also get my share of hate mail and criticism. I’ve even heard about a couple of blogs out there dedicated to ripping Minimum Security apart. Sometimes a right-wing blog will send a flurry of angry messages my way, but they die down pretty quick. I just delete them. Overall, the positive far exceeds the negative. I think many people want more art that challenges the status quo, and they appreciate it when they find it.

What's the future hold for the folk at Minimum Security - any chance of live action or even another full length graphic novel?

Minimum Security is currently on the web site of United Media (Comics.com). If it does well there, and develops enough of a growing audience, then it’s possible that United will syndicate the strip for print as well (currently I self-syndicate it in print, and United syndicates it in electronic form). I would like to do another graphic novel (or more) with these characters, perhaps a sequel to As the World Burns. There are no current plans for animation, but it would be great to do that too. Mainly at this point I’m trying to get it into more print publications.

I would like to thank Stephanie for taking the time to answer my questions, and I encourage everyone to stop on over to Comics.com and get a fix of Minimum Security five days a week (Monday to Friday). Even better, why not pick up one of her snazzy Bunnista T-shirts or The Little Green Book: Bunnista's Book Of Quotations at the Minimum Security Shop.

Oh for those who were wondering, the title Minimum Security comes from something an inmate said on being released back into society when asked on how it felt to be free again. He replied that he still wasn't free - he was just in minimum security.

March 28, 2008

Book Review: Tank Girl: Armadillo! Alan C. Martin

I remember an interview with John Cleese of Monty Python fame where he described how they came up with the skits they performed on their old television series. They would, he said, simply take the most illogical premise to its logical conclusion. That was all very well and good, but half the time I don't think I could even get my head around what the premise was on half the old skits on Monty Python's Flying Circus let alone working them out to their logical conclusion.

In fact the thing I used to like best about that show and a few others of similar ilk was that they didn't have anything for the logical brain to hold onto. All you could do was sit back, enjoy the ride, and don't be too bothered about not understanding the whys and what-for of the action. It was a blissful descent into pure and utter chaotic anarchy that seems to be something uniquely English. Maybe it has something to do with living in a society which has been so rigidly class bound for so long that invites such out and out anarchy as a response.

Whatever the reason, the Brits have a long history of being right over the edge when it comes to comedy. Predating Monty Python with The Goon Show and Beyond The Fringe, and continuing on with stuff like The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Red Dwarf. It's not only television and radio that's been host to their comic insanity (Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy first saw life as a Radio show) but comics as well. Of these, the reigning queen of over the top is without a doubt Tank Girl
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The Tank Girl comic, and the indomitable character herself, first saw the light of day in 1988 thanks to the talents of writer Alan C. Martin and illustrator Jamie Hewlett. Together the two men created three graphic novels featuring the outrageous adventures of the girl and her tank. She and her friends fight a never ending war against injustice, anybody that pisses them off, and perform feats of daring that usually involve high powered ammunition and lots of things that go boom. Cutting a tank wide swath through the Australian Outback, they eat well, drink lots, and knock over the occasional bank when in need of cash.

While it might appear on the surface that Tank Girl and her friends are random acts of violence simply waiting to happen, there's far to them than meets the eye. To gain a deeper understanding of the maelstrom that is Tank Girl, you really need to read Tank Girl: Armadillo!, her first completely prose adventure written by Alan C. Martin and published by Titan Books.

Tank Girl: Armadillo! features a novella of the same name, plus some bonus features including a couple of comic scripts awaiting illustrations, poems, and other short writings where our heroine is in full action mode. It's the novella though where most of the action takes place and also where we get a whole bunch more information about Tank Girl herself, and a little bit of insight into the philosophy behind Alan C. Martin's creation.

In his introduction to Tank Girl: Armadillo! he talks about how we are continually bombarded with sensual stimulation until we are literally drowning in information overload. To combat this we raise shells to defend ourselves and learn how to shut off our sensory receptors. Unfortunately by doing this we also block our flow of creative energy. In this way, Martin says, the modern world refuses us our right to be who we are.

Like armadillos we're naked under our armour, and if we didn't create this armour we would be swamped and overwhelmed. According to Martin we need to take control of our armour and not let it form as a reaction to the greed and manipulation of advertisers, politicians, and the rest of the information merchants in order to survive. That's where Tank Girl comes in; her armour is in plain view and she makes damn sure that nobody is going to sell her snake oil of any shape or form.
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So that's the context for reading Tank Girl: Armadillo and it's all very well and good, but I defy anybody to remember that while reading the story. Well maybe it's percolating somewhere in the back of your skull, but the truth of the matter is that it's far too easy to get caught up in the sheer crazy, insanity of the story. I think the secret to enjoying this story is that you make sure your seat belt is securely fastened, your dis-belief checked at the door, and you hang on tight because your in for the ride of my life.

You see the self righteous folk of the town of Chankers, (rhymes with wankers), have been abusing the love of Tank Girls' life, Booga the kangaroo, since he was just young. Now they have finally crossed the line by kidnapping him, tying him up in the basement of the town church and punishing him for being a sinner. There's only one thing to do in a case like this; bring down death and destruction with all the armament the tank can bring to bear.

Of course it's not just death and destruction, there's also some random acts of stupidity and other completely nonsensical incidents which don't bear repeating, but are all good clean fun. Well not really - more like heavy duty anarchic chaos that's good for the soul and bad for the establishment. That's the thing about Tank Girl, she's got a fine sense of justice and a good notion of right and wrong. Sure she might over react just a teensy bit now and then, but sometimes the only way people are going to listen to you is if you drop a small nuclear device on their town.

I think what I appreciated most about Tank Girl: Armadillo! is Alan C. Martin's writing. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book when it came to how the story was going to be told, but not only can he write some mean chaotic prose, he also give us pauses in the action which are not only poetic, but actual poetry. It might sound corny, but these poetic interludes show us the Tank Girl who would exist if she didn't have to be concerned about wearing armour to protect herself from the havoc of everyday existence.

Tank Girl: Armadillo! is the natural heir to the British comedy shows of the 1960's and 1970's like Monty Python's Flying Circus in that it also takes an illogical situation to its most logical conclusion. The only difference is that Tank Girl: Armadillo! has far more basis in reality than those other shows did. On the surface this is a hoot and a holler, but underneath it all is a call to arms.

We could all use a little more Tank Girl in our lives and Tank Girl: Armadillo! is just the answer. It goes on sale in mid April at book dealers of class and style everywhere.

March 20, 2008

Book Review: Callisto Torsten Krol

I have no idea where the misconception came from that satire has to be funny. Satire can be funny on occasion, but as it is a means of criticizing society there are going to be times that it won't be funny in the slightest. Anyway, the things that one person finds problematic in life, another person is going to believe in devoutly, meaning that there's always going to be someone who doesn't get the joke no matter how funny you make satire.

Classic satires like George Orwell's Animal Farm, where he equated Stalinist Russia with a barn yard revolution and showed the leaders of the revolution becoming as corrupt as the usurped masters, isn't funny at all once you understand what's being depicted. Yet for far too many people it's become a silly cartoon to be taken at its surface value where you laugh at the antics of the funny animals. For the modern satirist to be successful, which in my mind means getting his or her audience to question the status quo, he or she has to find a way to bring their audience to the point where they see how ridiculous things are, without their attention being diverted by the humour.

The other major difficulty facing a satirist is ensuring that the object of the satire doesn't become the object of the audiences' affection. If you start identifying with Homer Simpson or Archie Bunker, how are you going to see them as the objects of ridicule that they are supposed to be? If a character is to represent an area of malaise in society what does that say if the audience feels sympathy for him? While it could mean that society is a lot worse off then the author thought, it usually means that the character's creator hasn't been as honest in his depiction as necessary.
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In his latest novel, Callisto, Australian author Torsten Krol has created a character, who while not necessarily un-likeable, isn't going to be someone that most of his readership are going to want to admit identifying with. Odell Deefus is what most people would call a few bricks short of a load, or any of the other euphemisms people might have for the genuinely stupid. If his IQ were any lower he could be considered developmentally challenged, and somewhere else he might have been, but not in the heartland of America, Yoder Wyoming, where Odell was brought up.

Of course as Odell is our source of all information for his little adventure in twenty-first century real-politic, he's not about to admit to the fact that he's what a generous person would call slow. In fact he goes out of his way to draw our attention to his great intellect by informing us that he's read The Yearling sixteen times. (It won the Pulitzer Prize so it can't be a book for dumb people) Anyway, Odell is intent on reassuring us about his intelligence because he wants us to take the story he's about to recount seriously.

Once he starts telling us the story you begin to understand why he's so desperate to assure us of his grip on sanity, and his ability to think straight. Through an amazing series of coincidences, misadventures, misunderstandings, (there are a lot of those when Odell is involved), and straight out stupidity, Odell ends up involved with a scheme to run drugs into a local prison, a murder investigation, and the attention of the good folk at Homeland Security on suspicion of terrorist activity. To think it was all because he was making his way to the enlistment centre in Callisto Kansas so he could do his patriotic duty and go over and kill some of them Islamic extremists.

He figures he stands a good chance of being signed up, even though he doesn't have a high school diploma, because they now have a test you can take instead. Besides they're so desperate for recruits they're offering a bonus for signing up, so they're not going to be too bothered about whether a fellow's graduated or not. Anyway what else kind of work is available these days for a guy without a high school diploma. Nope the army is just thing for a guy like Odell, and the millions of others like him across America.

Odell is not the only character in the book of course, but he is the centre of everyone's attention from the moment his car breaks down on the outskirts of Callisto when he's on his way to the recruiting centre. (Which had been closed for about a year by the time Odell gets there due to lack of interest) Most people on meeting Odell for the first time realize what a golden opportunity he is for whatever plans they might want carried out. A born again Christian preacher, drug running prison guards, a right wing politician, the FBI, and the boys from Homeland Security all see him as the answer to their prayers. What none of them count on is Odell's own unique way of seeing the world and how it will enable him to thwart them at every turn.

Torsten Krol, (whose a bit of a mystery as he does no publicity and only communicates to his agent by the internet leading to intense speculation as to his true identity), has created in Odell Deefus a character who is almost to naive to believe. Yet, once we learn to accept Odell's vision of the world and allow ourselves to see it through his eyes, everything he does makes perfect sense. Torsten has imbued him with an emotional depth, and honesty, that is humbling. For we, like all the other characters in the book, have the tendency to stop treating him like a human being and only see the surface fool.

Krol exposes our own callousness through Odell, and we can laugh all we want at how he's being deceived by the other characters in the book until a couple of things strike us. What happened to our compassion that this person who is being treated like dirt by everyone around him elicits our scorn instead of our sympathy? The second thing is that we slowly realize if we're laughing at him for still buying the line about duty and patriotism being more important then civil rights; that if we're laughing at him for any of the things he's honest enough to admit being taken in by, aren't we laughing at ourselves just as much because we've been taken in as well.

For the world that Odell Deefus lives in is the same world we live in. While some of the characters, are slightly cartoonish, they are very real representations of the types they represent in our world. Beneath the buffoonery reality is there in all its stark ugliness, and in the end not even Odell's delusions can protect him from it. To me this is satire at it's finest, as Krol creates characters and situations that are nearly cartoon, but have enough reality in them for us to recognize them as our own world, while ensuring all the while we are laughing at ourselves without knowing it.

Not everyone is going to like Torsten Krol's depiction of life in America, or enjoy the book that much for that reason. Unfortunately it's not always a pleasant thing to look in a mirror and see yourself on a particularly bad day, and that's what Torsten Krol has done - caught America in the midst of a very bad day.

March 11, 2008

Book Review: My Boring Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary Of Kevin Smith Kevin Smith

I remember a time many years ago when I was directing Samuel Becket's play Waiting For Godot and being surprised at how so many people still didn't understand what it was about. We had been booked to perform it at a private school where the senior class was studying it, and before the show I got up to introduce the play and asked the kids to tell me truthfully how many of them found the play boring. After a little hesitation nearly all of them raised their hands, and I told them, well you're right, it's really boring.

I then told them a little of the play's history, how the first time an English language audience understand the show, really related to it, was when a production of the play was mounted at San Quentin prison for guys serving long term or life sentences. They had immediately understood, and identified with, the way the characters were so desperate to find something, anything, to do that would pass the time waiting for a day to end so they could get onto the next day and do the same thing all over again.

It was Beckett's contention that the majority of us spent our time exactly as his character's did in vain search of something to fill the hours of the day with meaning. Our jobs, our religious beliefs, and everything else that we feel or do all derive from that impetus. In Waiting For Godot he has taken that to absurd lengths with his two characters as they contemplate everything from suicide to violence in an effort to fill that emptiness.
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What, you must be wondering, does Waiting For Godot have to do with Kevin Smith's book, My Boring Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary Of Kevin Smith? Isn't it just a collection of entries from the online diary that he keeps where he talks about the his day to day life and all the boring details there in?

Well, yeah, the book is made up of just over a year of entries that were previously published at Silent Bob Speaks.com, and there is day after day of I got up, let the dogs, out went to the can had a shit while doing this on the lap top, went down to the office and answered e-mail until it was time to take the kid to school; stopped and picked up breakfast for the wife at such and such and came home. The entry would continue on in that vain, until he would fall asleep watching episodes of television he'd bought through i-Tunes.

Of course since he is Kevin Smith the film director, he does occasionally lead a more exciting life than most people and periodically there are entries that deal with his life in film. The year or so in question that makes up this book includes an account of his first appearance in a film playing somebody aside from Silent Bob, when he made the movie Catch And Release, describes appearing opposite Bruce Willis for one scene in the latest instalment of the Die Hard franchise, and relates the making of his own movie, Clerks ll.

Oh and he does other stuff, like appearances at comic conventions, radio interviews about Star Wars: The Revenge Of The Sith, fundraisers he and his wife do for their daughter's school, signing shit-loads of merchandise to be sold at his comic stores or through his View Askew company's web site, and going to the Cannes film festival with Clerks ll and receiving an eight minute standing ovation at the conclusion of its showing. You know trivial, boring, day to day stuff that all of us experience.

Of course there has to be something about Jason Mewes in all this too. For those of you from another planet, Jason has played Jay, the long haired, loud mouthed, foul mouthed, moronic, stoner, whose a fixture in the world where Clerks 1 & ll, Mallrats, Dogma and of course Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back take place. Inseparable in real life as they are on screen, Kevin's description of Jason's descent into the hell of addiction, and the years he took to climb out again are probably the most devastatingly honest description of the helplessness one must feel when you feel like you're losing a loved one to drugs.

I think what blew me away the most about that part of the book is not once did I get the feeling that Kevin was making himself out to be anything special or any kind of hero because of what his friend went through. I doubt he would have ever even written anything about it if it weren't for the fact that he felt it important that the truth be told about what happened instead of second hand crap turning up in the tabloids. He doesn't make it out to be more or less than what it was, offering no excuses for Jason, (he does offer us the explanation though that Jason's mom was a junkie, he never knew his father, and his mother had him running drugs when he was nine years old, and later became his major supplier for prescription medicines) and taking none of the credit for Jason's recovery.
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As a former drug abuser myself whose been clean for fourteen years and still has to say in one way or another, I'm not going to use today, I understood the significance of Jason being able to say "I don't need to do that today, and probably not tomorrow either". When Kevin recounts those moments, they aren't famous people from Hollywood, they are two guys from Jersey - close friends who cared deeply enough about each other that the one had the strength to say no when it was needed and the other to go clean.

That's the thing about Kevin Smith and his movies; he is one of us. I don't mean we're all medium height, husky, white guys who wear shorts and high-tops, but that feeling that has permeated all his films from Clerks through to Jersey Girl (Which I thought was a wonderful movie by the way and am proud to say that I own a copy of the DVD) that it could be you or me up on that screen.

Yes, even Dogma. Suspend your disbelief about angels, apostles, and devils walking the earth for a second, and think about the way Bethany feels about life. We've all been there haven't we? Wondering what the fuck, and if this is your idea of a big plan God, well I don't want to play anymore. I know there are plenty of film types out there that have said Smith's movies only appeal to a certain type of people, and Kevin says he understands if people don't share his skewed view of the world, but there's more to his movies than I think he even gives himself credit for.

I was about a third of the way through My Boring Ass Life, still wondering what the hell was so interesting about reading about some guy talking about spending his hours watching DVDs, going to the toilet, and making runs for fast food when it hit me that it was like watching one of his movies. While this book is about the details of his life, the things he does that fill his time, his movies are about what the people in them do fill their time, and that's something we all do.

Hanging out at the mall, playing video games, dealing drugs, dreaming of the opportunity to be something else, might not be what you do to fill the hours of your day, but you have the equivalent in your life. I know I do. You may not want to identify with Randal and Dante at the Quick Stop, or Jay and Silent Bob, but you can't deny that on some level there's a chord of recognition that's being struck as you watch them. You may not be any more like them than you are like Vladimir and Estragon, but that doesn't mean they don't mirror some part of your life.

The candid honesty in Kevin Smith's My Boring Ass Life that everyone refers to isn't the fact that he admits to masturbating or that he and his wife enjoy having sex together. What takes real guts, in this work ethic, always have to be doing something productive society that we live in is his willingness to admit that he's perfectly content to play on line poker for hours on end, curl up and watch movies with his wife and daughter, write a boring ass diary on the web, or sit and talk for hours with a friend.

To some people that might be a "boring ass life" or seen as wasting time, but I think anybody who makes time in his or her day to do puzzles with his child or let a friend know that he's important is making fine use of his time. Randal and Dante might be "losers", and even that's debatable, but Kevin Smith knows what's important in his life and take care of it. His life is anything but boring and nowhere near a waste.

February 26, 2008

Book Review: Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages Edited by R.V. Branham

Maybe it's because I write so much, but I've always been fascinated with words and languages. Where did they come from; how did different sounds come to represent words for different people, and why? I think it's amazing that so many people have come up with different ways of being able to communicate ideas, emotions, and abstract concepts.

There's so much you can learn about a culture from its language based on the ideas and concepts they are able to express and how they utilize the words at their disposal when doing so. In English we may be able to call an object a television and understand what that means, but another language may have to string a couple of words together that will describe the function in order to communicate the same meaning: the box which brings people to life.

English of course is itself a mongrel of a language, being made up of bits and pieces from all the peoples who ever invaded the British Isles dating back to the Romans and earlier. If you look at the earliest texts written down in the English language, Beowulf. Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, or Chauser's Canterbury Tales you wouldn't recognize it as being the same as what we speak today. Even today the English language continues to evolve depending on where its spoken and by whom. The English spoken in India differs from that spoken in Australia, which differs from what's spoken in Canada, and that in turn is different from the form it takes in the United States.

Yet, in spite of all that's different between us, and all the distinctive flavours that our languages have, there is one thing it seems they all have in common; the ability to rip the flesh off someone's bones with a few well chosen words or phrases. According to Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages published by Soft Skull Press every language from Afrikaans to Zulu contains the means to be rude, crude, lewd, and just downright insulting.

Assembled by the staff of the international literary review, the The Gobshite Quarterly and edited by R.V. 
Branham, editor of the same publication, Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages contains an A - Y(abnormal - Yuppie/snob: apparently no curses they have found in the English language begin with Z) listing of English profanity translated into as many languages as possible. A second section contains a selection of choice phrases for use in specific circumstances. "Corpus Politic Or What Would Caligula Say/Do & Variations" for instance contains a list of things that one culture might say to another in a moment of pique, or aspersions you might want to cast upon your political enemies in times of undue stress.

In his introduction to this compendium of invective, Mr Branham makes no bones about his intent. He's appalled at what he considers our cavalier attitude towards swearing. We now toss off words, that even a generation ago would have caused consternation among the masses, without a second thought and they have lost their power to inflame or incite. By opening our eyes to some of the truly inventive means others have found for utilizing what we have managed to trivialize through overuse, he hopes to instil in us a new respect for the profane and encourage his readers to breath new life into that which has been allowed to become moribund - swearing.

Now I won't say that I've read every listing, but even a sampling of the offerings under the various headings in this dictionary (the majority of which if published here would probably result in this site being blocked by parental locks on servers around the world) is enough to make a reader realize how much we have been limiting ourselves. The Spanish, for example, have a way with a descriptive phrase that makes the rest of the world seem like innocents, and I doubt that anybody can match certain Mid Eastern languages for inventiveness when it comes to curses.

Curses are of course a different matter all together from cursing, and it's interesting to note how some cultures make use of one over the other when it comes to wishing a person ill. I have to admit that until now I hadn't given the matter much thought, but after what I've read here, I can see the attraction of a good hearty curse as compared to cursing. A curse has the power of momentum behind it, and as it builds up a head of steam to its denouement it gives you a wonderful opportunity to let someone know the depth of your feelings towards them. It's definitely an area where the English language has been lagging behind the rest of the world, and Curse + Berate offers up some wonderful choice examples that surely will provide fodder for the inventive mind.

The other thing that becomes abundantly clear from reading this book is how much we all have in common when it comes to our source material for swearing. Body parts, bodily functions, and religion are at the top of the charts for almost every single language on earth when it comes to cursing. Animals feature high on the list too of course, but usually only when combined with human activity - generally sexual for some reason.

Sex: there's no getting away from it when it comes to swearing it seems. Somehow being able to work the subject of sex or sexuality into your invective makes it all that more potent. What that says about most cultures attitudes towards sex isn't very complimentary, as it means that the subject is still obviously taboo or considered somehow dirty, but next to references to God, I'd have to say that sexual activity and defecation are the most prominent features of cursing across the board. (Being able to combine the three into one curse is the sign of an extremely inventive mind and obviously an ideal to strive for in your own attempts.)

Aside from the obvious benefits of attempting to build bridges between cultures that a book like this strives for by showing the reader that no matter where we live we have so much linguistically in common, I'd be remiss in mentioning just how much fun this book is. If you don't have any hang ups about swearing - and if you did I doubt you'd even open the damned thing - Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages will have you laughing so hard that it will hurt.

Some of the funniest parts of the book are the literal translations of other languages' expressions. While an idiom taken as a whole will have one meaning, and that can be funny enough - when translated word for word it becomes even more outlandish and hilarious. Some of the best examples for this are some of the Chinese dialects - check out the Mandarin slang for breasts and you'll see what I mean.

Curse + Berate In 69 + Languages is one of the funniest, most intelligent, and inventive books on language that you will ever come across. If this book doesn't give you a new respect for the wonder of words - nothing will.

February 25, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Three

It took what seemed forever and a day for the boys in blue to get finished with me that night. I guess I was lucky it was only the local boys and the R.C.M.P. didn't think it worth getting down off their high horses for a simple bar knifing. Probably if they had known what was behind it all they would have pried their saddles loose from their butts, but I'd been playing it close to the vest so far. As far as anybody could tell I was only another witness to a senseless act of random violence.

Well that's what I thought it looked like, but Ottawa's finest must have had other thoughts. The obligatory uniform had shown up twenty minutes after the first screams and in the meantime the bar had emptied quicker then a tourist's bowel in Mexico. By the time the boys from Homicide made it to the scene it was only me, the peelers, the girls who served the drinks and the bartender.

The bartender hadn't looked at all happy when I suggested we call the cops, but even he couldn't think of a way of disposing of this problem. While I had been phoning 911, he had been on the other line to his boss. The type of guy who owns these bars likes to know when the police are going to be visiting his premises just as a matter of principle. Usually it's to check whether the paperwork for the Eastern European girls' will be needed or not.

Sometimes the owners will give these girls an incentive for working by "holding" on to their documents for them – to keep both the girls and the documents from getting lost. Those girls usually have had someone do them the great favour of buying them a ticket out of their shit hole village in the Balkans and offering them a job in the "Entertainment and Hospitality" business. If they were lucky it only meant stripping.

But they didn't have to worry, the homicide dicks took one look at the seven inches of steel (it only looked like three to me, but the guys who write up the reports think the bigger the better, although I've always thought it's not the size that matters; dead after all is dead) sticking out of the guy's back and are immediately on to bigger fish to fry. Me.

McIntosh and Gates might have been nice people off the job, hell they probably were kind to widows and orphans and all that other good stuff too, but being homicide cops for twenty years can make you pretty jaded when it comes to the job. Thankfully they didn't dislike me personally, only on principle. Detective work should be left to the cops and private dicks should stick to ruining people's marriages was how Gates had summed it up the first time he met me. (I don't think he ever found out about the manila envelope full of prints of him and the little Russian stripper that his ex – wife had paid me two thousand dollars for)

"Look who it is Mac, the big time private detective holding up a bar with a corpse leaning on his size elevens. That's a sight to warm the cockles of a person's heart, providing of course they have one." He was a skinny little guy who looked like he should have a cigarette dangling out his mouth as he was always talking out of the other side.

"One what? A heart or a cockles?" was McIntosh's humorous reply. He was a regular laugh riot that guy. He was an average build sort of type; the kind whose clothes hang around them to see if anything interesting was going to happen to the body and gradually lose what ever shape they might have had as they give into the inevitability of gravity.

They were both eyeing me in that appreciative manner that lions have for fresh meat, and Mac mimed flipping a coin. Nodding in an unspoken agreement Gates moved off to talk to the girls and the bartender while Mac figured he'd keep me company in case the body started to scare me.

It was one of those awkward moments between two men in a bar ever since they had banned smoking in public places. When you don't have the action of lighting a cigarette to use as cover for starting a conversation you can feel mighty exposed. To cover he fished in his jacket pocket and brought out his little flip-top note book and cheap chewed pen and began scanning the notes he had taken down from the preliminary results given him by the scene of the crime boys and the uniforms who had got here first.

After that little show he looked over at me, nodding his head imperceptibly to give me permission to talk. He knew that it as a matter of course I would be telling him as little as possible about any case I was working on and the only information he was going to get from me was stuff he already had. This was just their way of letting me know what was what.

So I told him I'd come to the bar to meet a contact who had called me over the phone, and that while waiting for him to show up this guy had fallen down dead at my feet after trying to swallow a sword with his sternum. McIntosh obviously had something up his sleeve that he was waiting to drop on me like an Acme anvil taking out the Coyote. He was just letting me play out some line so that he could see if I'd let slip with anything he was going to be able to use to string me up with.

When he played his trump card it wasn't anything that I wasn't prepared for, it was all just part of the game we played. The corpse was my contact it turns out, or the fact that he had my business card, with the time of our meeting and the bar's address scribbled on the back of it would have to rank up there with one of the largest coincidences on record.

Mac stood there waving the familiar card with the unfamiliar writing on the back in it's little evidence bag, as if dangling it in front of my face would make me all of a sudden break down to confessing the killing of all my clients. But I was made of harder stuff than that and came right back with my own question.

"Since you seem to think this guy must have been a client, why not give me his name. I hate it when they die on you before they've introduced themselves. It really puts a damper on future relationship possibilities and collecting from their next of kin"

I could see him mulling it over, wondering how much it damage it would cause his reputation if he were just to give me the name. At the same time I could let something slip that might just tie me a little bit tighter to the corpse. Finally he cleared his throat and recited what little information they did have. "His name was Dr. Samuel Magnesun, but he's not the sort of doctor you go to when you have a sore throat. He works, well worked for I guess you'd say now, the National Research Council here in Ottawa. We haven't been able to find out what he'd been working on yet; we're still waiting to hear back from his section head at the Council. I hadn't said more then dead in a bar, when the words National Security came whistling down the line, which than went deader than a dodo."

He eyed me even more expectedly now, to see if I could add to anything to the sketch of information that he had gathered. Even if I could give him something more, I think we both had the feeling of inevitability that strikes you when something is going to be swept under the carpet. National Security could explain away everything from not accepting tenders for military equipment so you could award the contracts to your buddies or those whose support you, to explaining the paperclip shortage at the Revenue Canada offices.

Truth be told I was thinking of a particular Nordic looking blonde and wondering what her relationship was with this middle aged chap laid out on the floor with a rib separator jammed into the area of his heart from the back and whether or not she'd require some consoling, when a loud throat clearing brought me back to reality.

Reality in the shape of Gates glowering at me from McIntosh's shoulder and saying, "Dick head are you listening to me? Unless you got something important to say, you've got to clear out. I've just got the word that the men in the grey suits are on their way to check out the body before we can take it down to the morgue. I only hope they hurry it up as this guy is starting to stiffen in that shape. Families hate it when they have to bury the corpse in pieces cause we had to break it to fit it into the bags."

I don't need to be told twice to vamoose when the feds are going to be making an appearance, but their appearance started to change the whole completion of this little exercise. What did my friend the corpse, the late Mr. Magnesun have to do with the Kyoto accord? Had he made some sort of breakthrough that certain bodies wanted silenced? Or was it just he had knowledge that ran contrary to what the government and its supporters wanted the public to believe about the accord's necessity?

Stopping on my way out of the bar, I checked the least vandalised pay phone for a directory and as I suspected there was only one listing for a Magnesun in the phone book. It wasn't that late yet, so I figured I'd swing by the address listed on my way home and see if a certain ash blond head was around to talk to.

I could offer my condolences, maybe some comfort, and hopefully pick up a few answers about the good Doctor's work and how or if it related to the Kyoto accord and what it was she was doing in the bar earlier that evening. With the feds swooping down on Magnesun's corpse like so many vultures, it would only be a matter of time before they had everything about him and the Kyoto accord under lock and key where they would never see the light again.

I still had far more questions then answers, but at least I was beginning to know which questions to ask. Like why were the feds so keen to keep the information about the Kyoto accord quiet? One way or another I was going to find me some answers, and I didn't care who I had to walk over or sleep with to get them. Although as far as the latter is concerned my preference would be for a certain ash blond.

January 11, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security

In the days known as P.D. (Pre Doonsbury) political cartoons with human characters were limited to the editorial page and one large square. The only political comic strip in P.D. critical of the status quo that made it into the daily papers was Walt Kelly's Pogo. Periodically it would feature a character based on first President Lyndon Johnson and in latter Richard Nixon. I seem to remember Johnson was a Basset Hound and Nixon a Hyena, both remarkably astute pieces of caricature when it came to the two men in question.

In Canada there were two of what were known as editorial political cartoonists that were head and shoulders above the pack, Aislin, the pen name for Terry Mosher and Duncan Macpherson. I think the fact that I can still remember both of them, and specific pieces of their art from thirty odd years ago speaks volumes as to their style and abilities. Both men considered it open season on politicians of all parties and leanings, and you would have been hard pressed guessing any political allegiances on the part of either man.

In those days the best you could hope for in terms of the mainstream media when it came to political cartoons was that they weren't flag wavers who demonized supposed enemies by depicting them as racial stereotypes. Duncan Macpherson was probably one of the few cartoonists who would draw an Asian face without making it a mask of evil during the height of the Vietnam war.

It wasn't until Garry Trudeau's Doonsbury that a daily comic strip in the mainstream dared to politically agitate against the powers that be. During the Watergate era of Richard Nixon his strip was actually pulled from newspapers across the United States because the content was periodically considered too volatile and he's probably one of the few cartoonists to ever have motions of censor put forward against him in the Senate.
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Thirty plus years later there still aren't many political cartoons to be found on the comic pages of the mainstream press aside from Gary's strip. However, in first the alternative press, and now the Internet, political cartoons of all stripes have sprouted that make Trudeau's strip look tame in comparison. Unfortunately a good many of them, no matter what their politics, really aren't worth the paper or the bandwidth required to produce them.

Thankfully there are people like Stephanie McMillan and her comic Minimum Security that more than compensate for the failings of others. While she makes no secret of her politics and her opinions she takes the time and effort to research her information and creates cartoons that are witty, intelligent, and iconoclastic. In an era when so much of popular culture is designed to perpetuate the status quo Stephanie bravely uses her comic strip to point out that not only doesn't the Emperor have any clothes on, but that the Empire is without substance behind its pretty facade.

She tackles all the expected issues, Iraq, Homeland Security, Global Warming, and Human Rights. However unlike so many others who are apt to say this is bad, and leave it at that, Stephanie goes the step further and not only explains why, but proves it as well. Open the collection of her work, Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan -Minimum Security published by N.B.M. Publishing, to almost any page and you'll see what I mean.

While the boy wonder, George Bush Jr., is called to account by her cartoons for a good many of the problems facing America (and the world) Ms. McMillan is not naive enough to believe that one figure head is the root cause. In some ways Bush is only a symptom of the system that's been nurtured and developed for two hundred and thirty one years. American foreign policy in North and South America has always been predicated on the needs of corporate America, and today's circumstances are merely a continuation of that policy on a world wide basis.

From the days of the United Fruit company's sole proprietorship of the economies of Cuba, Central America, and South America to today's rapacious demands of the petroleum industry, America's military has always been there to open new markets and defend business' right to exploit foreign nationals. Of course it's all justified in the name of democracy, although how installing military dictators like August Pinochet to overthrow an elected government counts as protecting democracy I've never understood.
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Stephanie knows this and depicts Bush as being a tool of the industrial complex and his policies as having less to do with preserving America than preserving the privileges of his class and protecting the interests of corporate America. She doesn't just make wild accusations without supplying proof either. In various cartoons and strips she quotes facts and figures substantiating everything from the drop in real income across America, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the ever increasing profits enjoyed by multinational businesses.

But you know what's best about Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security? It's funny, well at least I found it funny, but for those of you like me who have grown tired of painfully earnest progressive people (and boy do I mean painful) she's a breath of fresh air. Where else are you going to find Bunnista, the revolutionary bunny rabbit who lost an eye to animal testing and has now dedicated himself to "the overthrow of the capitalist/imperialist system by the international Proletariat and revolutionizing all of society based on need rather than profit".

Of course Bunnista has to deal with Bananabelle Skylark who claims there's no need to change the outer world if we but only learn to live in the moment. Social problems are merely a reflection of our inner selves and the world is actually perfect, it's our consciousness that determines our reality. Thankfully, there's also Kranti. She still tries to hand out free plants on earth day to her neighbours, but is aware enough to know that we need to change the way we live if we have a hope of surviving.

The interaction between the three and the world around them lifts the strip out of the polemic and puts it firmly in the land of comics. They allow her to poke gentle fun at the left and some of the didactic that's spouted by people more in love with slogans than actual problem solving. But unlike so many others Kranti and her friends know that things aren't as rosy as Fox Television would like us to believe, and they're doing their best to figure out what to do about it.

Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan Minimum Security is a collection of Ms. McMillan's work from early one panel editorials to some of her more recent cartoon strips. They are funny, wise, not a little bit sad, but most of all, intelligent. Voices of dissent are few and far between these days in the mass media, so to find one as smart and humorous as Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security is nothing short of miraculous.

November 7, 2007

Book Review: Gentlemen Of The Road Michael Chabon

In the Dark Ages, when most of Europe was covered in mud, shit, and the Black Plague, there was still a golden civilization in the East centred on Constantinople. The Byzantium Empire was all that was left of the once fabulous Roman Empire that stretched through Europe and Asia. In the eyes of the Christian world, it was a beacon for all things glorious, and was regarded as the toehold required for the re-conquest of the Holy Lands.

But just across the Black Sea lurked the Caliphs who controlled the lands that were so coveted by the Popes in Rome that they lost no sleep over spending the lives of the "faithful" on useless Crusades in the vain hope of recovering Jerusalem and putting the Infidels to the sword. But these were not the only two empires, nor the only faiths represented in the area. For reasons best known to themselves the Kings of Khazar had in centuries past converted to Judaism. If Constantinople represented a beacon of hope for Christians, can you imagine what a Kingdom of Jews must have been for those who were spat upon, cursed, and routinely burned at the stake by their fellow citizens?

Even in Muslim controlled Spain, where Jews had risen to positions of power and were able to lead their lives relatively free of the injustices faced by their Christian ruled brethren, Khazar represented a place of wonder. Everybody wants to be masters of their own fate and not worry about if they will be welcome tomorrow, and to the Jews who felt like unwelcome guests wherever they went, Khazar would have represented that hope.
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So it's not surprising that Michael Chabon's latest novel Gentlemen Of The Road published by Random House Canada through their Doubleday Canada's Bond Street Books imprint, featuring two Jewish adventurers would end up with Khazar being the locale for the greater part of their exploits. Though polar opposites in appearance, Zelikman, the white skinned, rake thin, and black clothed itinerant physician from the country of the Franks (present day Germany and France), and Amaran, a descendant of the Queen of Sheba's day's as bride of Solomon, hailing from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) is aside from being black as coal, is as heavy set as his companion is gaunt, are as close as two men can be who are not related or sharing a bed.

Euphemistically referred to as Gentlemen of the Road, latter days might have found them called con artists, grifters, and hustlers. But in the days when the only law was if you cut your way out of the mess you created you were adjudged innocent, while if you ended up spilling your entrails across the courtyard of some misbegotten Inn you were guilty, the position of freebooter was often all that was available to a man of limited lineage but possessing martial skills. So it should surprise no one that the end of the first millennium would find such two such disparate characters doing whatever was necessary to keep the flesh on their bones and the devil off their back.

What does come as a shock to both of them is the sudden onset of altruism that sees them willing to lend their arms and brains to the cause of a deposed Prince of Khazar. A callow youth possessed of no redeeming features of character, he still somehow manages to embroil them in his cause to usurp the usurper of his father's throne. Trivialities like raising an army, dealing with Viking raiders, and marching across miles of some of the least inhospitable terrain in the East at the onset of winter, The Caucasus Mountains, and the surrounding steppes, are simply inconveniences to be overcome en route to his goal.

In his after word, author Michael Chabon confesses to the fact that originally he had wanted to call the novel Jews With Swords but had such a hard time getting anyone to take that title seriously, including himself after a while, that he relented. How often do we hear tales of Jewish swashbucklers fighting their way across a continent with swords and wiles? Not very, in fact in all the annals of Jewish storytelling you'd be hard pressed I'm sure in finding such a creature.

Jewish characters tend towards the scholarly, with maybe the occasional intellectual revolutionary or troubled artistic soul thrown in for good measure. But men of the sword, Gentlemen of the Road, never. But with Michael Chabon's example, perhaps a whole new area of literary territory has been opened for exploration. Jewish Knights errant in search of Talmudic treasures guarded by fierce Dragons will roam the forests of Europe. Bands of mercenary Jewish warriors will be hired to attack on Sundays when all others are observing the Sabbath and be seen roaming the highways and byways of adventure stories.
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Probably not, but that's not for lack of a good example. This is a beautifully executed, highly enjoyable adventure story that is more fun than your standard swashbuckler because it refuses to take itself seriously. But even with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Chabon has created two wonderful characters whose interplay throughout the novel provides more then half the fun. Chabon's use of language makes up the rest, at least for me, as he's created his own adventure story argot that sounds like typical pulp fiction dialogue and description with a heavy Jewish inflection.

But that doesn't stop there from being moments of genuine emotions that are so often scarce in the novels of adventure writers and pulp fiction. Instead of just being participants in the story carrying out the demands of the plot, the characters are real human beings who are what we really care about. In some ways Chabon inverts the traditional adventure story by having the plot merely be a means for us to get to know the central characters.

No review would be complete of this book if there were no mention of the illustration scattered throughout by Gary Gianni. Without a doubt they are some of the best pen and ink drawings I've seen in ages. It's not often that an illustrator manages to put down on paper exactly what I see in my mind's eye when reading an author's description of a character. He also has that rather singular skill of capturing a moment in time that makes it appear the characters are right in the middle of their action, and merely waiting for our backs to be turned so they can get back at it.

They are a perfect augmentation to Gentlemen Of The Road in both their aspect and presentation, and executed with a skill that is very rarely seen anymore. I've always had a love for pen and ink drawings that are able to capture the spirit of a story as well as assist in its telling, and Gianni accomplishes that in a way that few other illustrators seem capable of anymore.

Gentlemen Of The Road is a wonderful book, with great characters, a fun story, and best of all not an insult to anyone's intelligence. Instead of relying on sword and sorcery, slave girls, and demons of the depths to generate a plot, this book is set in our world's real history, and is the better tale for it then so many other so called adventures. It would be nice to think that writers will take a cue from Michael Chabon, and this would herald a trend towards more stories of this kind

Those of you in Canada interested in picking up a copy of the book can either order it from Random House Canada's or through an online retailer like Amazon.ca

November 4, 2007

Book Review: The Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks Christopher Brookmyre

Without our ability to have faith in something, I doubt very many of us would be able to get out of bed in the morning. As far as I'm concerned having faith has nothing to do with whether you believe in a deity or not, it's about being able to believe in something that you can't see but know will happen anyway. It's not much of an act of faith, but believing the sun will come up the next day each day after it sets is just as surely an act of faith as believing that eating a piece bread and drinking some wine is the same as snacking on the son of God.

Seriously though, every time we do anything where we have no idea of the outcome is most definitely an act of faith. Starting a relationship with a new person, trusting a surgeon to cut you open properly, getting up on stage to perform a song in front of a live audience for the first time, and starting out on any new creative project all require you to have faith in either yourself of someone else.

Of course in all of those instances, the more success we have, the greater our faith in the successful outcome. We have proof that we are able to sing in front of a new audience and not be booed off stage so we get back up there and do it again with even more faith in our abilities to succeed. The same rule of thumb could be applied to all the instances cited above.
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Now in the eyes of some people the very fact that we have proof of something diminishes the role played by faith in the proceedings. According to them, it can only be faith based if there's no proof to verify how something occurred, or if we believe in spite of evidence pointing to the fact that what happened can't be substantiated. In other words, blind faith, where in spite of the fact that you have no reason to believe in something or somebody, you do anyway.

In Christopher Brookmyre's latest book Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, available in Canada through Penguin Canada, he turns his sights on the people who rely the most on people taking them on blind faith – psychics. He specifically takes aim at the ones who claim to be able to commune with the dead, and are able to deliver messages to us from the other side.

The "Unsinkable Rubber Ducks" of the title are a reference to the fact that no matter what proof is brought against the charlatans and fakes who populate the world of psychics there will still be people who will refuse to give up their faith. While willing to admit to an individuals perfidy, they claim it's not proof that there's no such thing as psychic powers, only that particular person was a fake. In the face of that unshakeable – idiocy, blindness, or as some would have it, faith, there really is nothing that can be done.

But if you're Christopher Brookmyre that doesn't stop you from taking a real good stab at it. Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks features the return of his character investigative reporter Jack Parlabane, who as is his wont soon finds himself up to the neck in a story taking on the forces of evil; better known as the right wing loonies who want to turn the clock back three hundred years. In this case it's the fight to endow Spiritual Science Chair at a Scottish university to legitimize the pseudo sciences that have no basis in physical evidence.

The big gun that they have brought into play, aside from the four million pounds they're willing to fork out as an endowment fee, is the self-deprecating Gabriel Lafayette, psychic extraordinaire from New Orleans. Not only does Gabriel come with impeccable credentials from America and appearances on television shows, he's accompanied by his own personal sceptic, an American scientist named Easy Mather.

Like most universities the world over the offer of four million pounds makes this pretty hard to refuse, the only problem being is the head of the science department, whose permission is needed for it to become part of the Science department, actually believes the Scientific Method of having to provide proof of your hypothesis is still a pretty good way of doing things. Which means he refuses to accept there is such a thing as psychic powers without concrete evidence provided by tamper proof testing procedures.

This is where our hero enters the picture; Jack is not only known for his work as an investigative reporter, but also his ability to pull aside the curtain and expose the little man pulling the strings and yanking the levers that make everything look like magic. On top of that he's just been elected rector of the university by the student population, (the fact that he was third choice and only won because the winner dropped dead of a heart attack, and the runner up was doing time for possession of a controlled substance does nothing to alter the fact that he did win), so there's even an excuse for him being chosen for the task of helping oversee the tests on the would be "psychic in residance"
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In previous books featuring Jack Parlabane, I've often thought of him as "his master's voice". Whenever Brookmyre feels the need to take a poke at a particularly unsavoury tactic of the right-wing in the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular, he brings in Jack to reveal the details of Brookmyre's own work investigating how things happened and how the strings of power are really manipulated.

Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is no exception, which means a wild and woolly roller coaster of a who done it mixed in with wicked humour, sly satire, and an attitude problem that should be fed intravenously to any reporter who feels that reprinting a government press release and putting their by line on it counts as investigative journalism.

Unfortunately saying anything more about the plot, or even how he's structured the narrative, would be too much spoiler information. I can say Brookmyre's writing is as astringent and dead on as usual and without normal whining of the left. Instead of merely complaining about how "mean and nasty" conservatives are, he reveals how they manage to get away with so much on the political front.

It's not magic, it's sure not because God is on their side, but it's because they are the past masters of manipulation. They never let a debate be clouded by the facts, always ensure they speak in vague generalities about belief, faith, and country, and contrive to make the other side out to be Godless, betrayers of all that's "good and decent about what we hold dear in Scotland", which means absolute bollocks but sounds great in a sound bite.

Brookmyre doesn't spell out any hidden agendas; point out secret conspiracy theories, or any of that stuff so beloved by the loony left, because he doesn't have to. Anything he writes about is known public policy of conservative parties the world over that nobody seems to remember until after they are elected and start carrying them out.

But the best thing about Christopher Brookmyre isn't that he knows his politics, it's that he's a brilliant storyteller, creates thoroughly believable characters, has a wicked sense of humour, and in this his eleventh book is still as much a breath of fresh air to read as he was with his first book. Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is funny, intelligent, and a great read. You can take that on faith.

October 2, 2007

Book Review: The Late Hectore Kipling David Thewlis

Have you ever stopped to consider where your thoughts come from, or at least how one thought leads to another until you have an unbroken chain that's taken you from an A to a Zed that have nothing in common with each other? That thing called a brain that's stuck up between our ears can do the most amazing things without us even noticing. One minute you could be talking about what you'd like for lunch, the next planning your own funeral.

In the early part of the twentieth century, James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe began experimenting with a style of writing called stream of consciences in attempts to chart the workings of the thought process. Since then, quite a few writers have followed in their footprints with varying degrees of success. Trying to recreate the continual flood of information that most of process from second to second without it becoming an exercise in tedium is a difficult and painstaking process.

Ideally, the author will utilize stream of conscience at points throughout a novel as a means of letting a character justify his or her behaviour, and to give the reader deeper insight into him or her. Of course, if as the reader we don't give a damn about the character it was all just wasted ink and paper.
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Stepping into someone else's thoughts can generate a slew of feelings in a reader. But I must say that David Thewlis' novel The Late Hector Kipling is the first that's made me feel like I was rubber necking at a car accident, trying to spot the corpse as I drove by slowly. Published in Canada by Penguin Canada this brilliant piece of satire, written in the first person, on the world of contemporary visual art and artists, charts the collapse of Hector Kipling's life from successful artist with loving girlfriend to nut-job.

Along the way, we are introduced to one of the most wonderful collections of misfits and dysfunctional characters I've had the pleasure of meeting between the pages of a book in the longest time. There's Kirk who paints pictures of cutlery, Hector's oldest friend Lenny Snook who does billboard campaigns for bottled water in his underwear when he's not doing award winning conceptual art that involves filling a Cadillac with blood and digging a hole in a gallery floor.

But it's the world of contemporary art that is the true eccentric in this book. Hector has made his name by selling huge portraits of people's heads and is able to make a good living from the proceeds. But, he's not the one being nominated for an award. He's plagued with self-doubts about whether giant heads are what the world needs more of, and when a motorcycle accidentally drives through the centre of his first self-portrait, it's like a sign from the Gods.

It hadn't been a good week up then for him anyway, earlier he had broken into tears in the Tate gallery in London England while looking at the "The Scream" by Edvard Munch (a pretty healthy reaction I would have thought). Then he finds out that Kirk has a brain tumour. What's especially disquieting about this is that he finds that he's actually jealous of Kirk.
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It's not that he wants to die; but he'd give anything to get the kind of attention that Kirk is getting now. Of course if Kirk were to actually die then that would be different, because he, Hector, would then get some of that pity because he would be the fiend of a person who died of a brain tumour. One can only hope.

David Thewlis is best known for his portrayal of Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies, but with The Late Hector Kipling, his first novel, he proves that he is just as adept at writing as he is as acting. He has a wonderful ear for the ridiculous and a keen sense of the absurd that he puts to use with great effect. What's especially gratifying is the way everything comes to its illogical, logical conclusion in the end.

Perhaps being an actor he's used to balancing several thoughts in his head at once, but whatever the reason, the internal stream of conscience monologues he creates for Hector are wonderful examples of a mind that is always thinking. The only trouble is the thoughts the mind are thinking have started to veer away from rational and creative, into the realm of the bizarre and dangerous.

The transition from the eccentric and creative mind of a painter, to the state that Hector is in at the end of the novel is handled so deftly and subtlety that we barely notice it happening. The fact is that for many people who are artists the line between creative genius and mental instability is very thin and Hector is no exception.

If you like your comedy black, your satire pointed, and have a keen sense of the absurd than David Thewlis' The Late Hector Kipling will be your cup of tea. Biting, sharp, and wickedly funny, it exposes and explodes the conceits and pretensions of modern art with an intelligence and skill that is a pleasure to read.

Canadians can purchase The Late Hector Kipling by David Thewlis through Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

September 25, 2007

Book Review: Rick Mercer Report: The Book Rick Mercer

According to the good people at Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary the definition of the word rant is as follows: "a noun meaning to speak in loud, violent, or extravagant language; rave". Seeing as rave is part of the definition, in an effort to be thorough I checked it out as well: "To speak wildly or incoherently."

According to that definition that means when we talk of somebody ranting, we're implying they are frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog, and spewing out massive amounts of insensible verbiage. It would seem to me that our current usage of the word is slightly more tolerant than that formal definition. In fact, I feel confident in suggesting that most people would agree that a rant is an impassioned statement about any subject a speaker or writer has strong feelings about.

Rants aren't even dangerous; usually they're just a really good way for a person to let off steam about something that's ticked them off in the moment. Unfortunately, some people live up to the dictionary definition, frothing at the mouth with hatred and ending up leaving a sour taste in most people's mouths. It doesn't have anything to do with political affiliations; hatred knows no party lines and left or right can be equally to blame.

The best types of rants are those done by intelligent people with great senses of humour. They are those people who won't be tied down by political affiliations or dogma, and have no problem with taking on idiocy no matter who the source is. The only people who need fear them are the self-righteous, the pompous, and folk who take themselves and their opinions far too seriously.
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A few years back Canadians were introduced to the comic genius of Rick Mercer when the satirical news/current events show This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes started being televised on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). More recently they have welcomed him into their homes as host of the Rick Mercer Report. Now thanks to Random House Canada and their imprint Doubleday Canada, we will now know him as an author. September 25th sees the publication of Rick Mercer Report: The Book, a compendium of interviews and editorials (rants) from four years of the show, and selected articles from his blog.

Rick is originally from the youngest province in Canada, and the one primarily known around the world for it's "barbaric" seal hunt; Newfoundland. Being from Newfoundland is an important part of Rick's makeup as a comic. Newfoundland didn't become part of Canada until 1949 and has been the poorest province since. When the Cod fish stocks failed and the seal hunt became unpopular, villages that had been first settled in the 1700's began turning into ghost towns.

Hardship like that can make you bitter, and sour your outlook on life. However, in the case of Mercer and the people he worked with on This Hour (who were either all from Newfoundland or the East Coast) it honed their bullshit detectors and gave them a healthy sense of scepticism when it came to the promises of politicians. Rick's opinions were made abundantly clear in his weekly "editorial" (rant) concerning something particularly inane that had happened in the world.

On the Rick Mercer Report, the editorials continued, but he also would do segments involving Canadian politicians, counting on their desire to be seen as "regular folk" with senses of humour. He arranged to sleep over at Prime Minister Harper's house, went skinny dippy with a leadership contender (Bob Rae) for the Liberal party, and took the leader of The Green Party out logging.

But I don't think the politicians would have done any of these stunts with Rick, no matter how popular his show is (and it is one of the most watched Canadian shows in Canada) if they didn't think there was more to him then caustic comments. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he treats everybody the same. If you insist on putting your foot in your mouth Rick has suggestions on how much further you can shove it down your throat no matter what political party you are with.
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But there's more to it then that; underneath the silliness and the satire you get the feeling he does what he's doing out of a genuine concern and love for Canada and her people. Perhaps it's not something you'd pick up on watching an episode or two of his show, but when the material is gathered together in one place as it has been for the book, it becomes a lot more obvious.

As you read through the various editorials and interviews, (the segment with environmentalist David Suzuki is worth the price of the book alone: middle of the winter and two men about to jump in a freezing cold lake – you take it from there), you can see that his indignity comes from politicians putting themselves ahead of the people and the country they are supposed to be representing. The only times you feel he is genuinely angry, not just teasing or sarcastic, are those when either people are being insulted or the country is being taken for granted.

When Prime Minister Harper showed himself willing to make deals with the political party bent on ensuring Quebec's separation from Canada (Bloc Quebecois) in an attempt to ensure he could stay in power, after promising never to do that in the election campaign, Mercer was more angry about the potential threat this posed to the country then the broken promise. When it was decided not to lower the flags on parliament hill when a soldier was killed in Afghanistan, in what appeared to be an attempt to hide information about casualties from the public, he was genuinely angry on behalf of the soldiers and the lack of respect he thought it showed for them and their families.

Whatever it is, and however he does it, and I don't think I can give concrete examples, reading Rick Mercer Report: The Book made me remember what used to make me proud of being Canadian. It's what has been missing from our leadership for a good long while now, compassion for those less fortunate.

Whether at home or abroad it was always what marked us and made us a distinctive country. If people were in trouble, we were there with help no questions asked. If people needed a safe haven from a dictator, we opened our borders to them – we have nothing if not room after all. Our armed forces were respected all over the world for being there to help settle disputes or bring vital supplies to people hit by a calamity beyond their control.

Reading this book it sounds to me that Rick Mercer wants to be proud of Canada again for those reasons. When he is critical of people for being selfish and self-serving, it is because they are doing it either at the expense of others or the future of the country. Rick Mercer Report: The Book is not just a series of political attacks for the sake of a few cheap laughs. It is a wake up call to all Canadians to remember what it was that made our country special.

If it can make an iconoclast like me think seriously about why I love my country, think what it can do for you. For those of you who aren't Canadian and wondered what makes us different from either the Americans or the British, reading this book will go a long way to offering an explanation.

Canadians wishing to buy the book can do so through Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

September 23, 2007

Book Review: Who Moved My Secret Jim Gerard

Have you ever noticed how those guys willing to teach you how to sell real estate so you too can be rich like them always have a "Secret To Their Success", or that weight loss groups promise you the "Secret To Losing Forty Pounds In Six Months". Everybody's got a secret these days, from their own "Secret Sauce" guaranteeing great barbecue to the secret of "Being The Best Possible You".

Most of these folk seem to live either on the home shopping network or on infomercials late at night or first thing Sunday morning, the time slots most affiliate stations never seem to be able to sell. Some of these folk with secrets have also written books about how they became such success. If you're really lucky you'll be able to buy their collected speeches for just $14.99, including a full colour booklet explaining how you can best use these tapes to help you emulate their achievements and learn their "Secrets"

But the folk who are the hands down winners, and make these television pitch guys look like rank amateurs in the "Secret" business, are the New Age proselytisers. The Secrets they know! From ancient Egypt to the court of Arthur and all points in between, beyond, under, and so far out I don't think they'll ever come home again. They sell methods of telling your future based on their Secret knowledge of Lord Of The Rings which inspired them to create a Tarot Deck based on fictional characters.

Some of them have even channelled the secrets of the Angels and have written out their conversations with them so you can find out what Michael and Gabriel think are your chances of getting laid this weekend. Or, if you're into something a little more down to earth, there are plenty of womyn ready to reveal the Secrets of the Earth-Mother/Goddess/Bunny Rabbit.
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But now we are all so very lucky, there will no longer be any room for doubt, because someone has finally written a book called The Secret which I assume will make all those lesser secrets obsolete. In between the covers of that book you must be able to learn how to do everything from selling real estate with no money down, have buns of steel in just twenty days, and learn just what Michael and Gabriel are thinking about.

Proving once again that the majority of North American's are looking for a quick fix and somebody else to do everything for them, this book has become an immediate best seller. If it wasn't so sad that so many people think the answer to all their problems could be found in a book it would be funny. Thankfully comic and author Jim Gerard has come to our rescue to poke fun at the whole phenomenon of The Secret with his book Who Moved My Secret. Published by Nation Books an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada. Who Moved My Secret exposes the real "Secret" behind all these books, makes fun of the idea that a secret exists to make life easy, and generally pokes fun of New Age sillyness.
Of course the real secret behind these books is greed and gullibility. Everybody wants to be able to have "abundance" in their lives and of course interprets that to mean material wealth. Authors of books like The Secret use that as their hook, and rely on those same people to be gullible enough to believe that their book will either tell them something new or tell them anything at all.

As Jim Gerard points out the real "secret" for the author's success lies in being able to sell as many of these books as possible. Yes, you too can make massive amounts of money if you can figure out how to pray on other people's frailties. It's quite amazing how the more somebody promises you something wonderful, the more they end up taking from you.

What I really enjoyed about Mr. Gerard's book is how he's managed to nail so many of the worst characteristics of the New Age movement and expose them for the idiocy they are. So much of New Age centres on the theory of manifestation. You can call forth anything you want just with the power of your mind and positive thinking. Which is all very nice and good, but there's a flip side to that.

Anytime anything goes wrong it's your own fault. You get sick with cancer, well it's because you're far too negative and so you're only getting what you deserve. You stay poor all your life only because you keep having nasty poor thoughts – if you can't think positive rich thoughts well you don't deserve to be rich.

New Age teachings talk continually about energy; giving off positive and negative energy and how it affects your life. In Who Moved My Secret we learn that all thoughts actually have energy and vibrations. "Every time we have a thought it vibrates at a certain frequency. Some thoughts only dogs can hear. God has thoughts that only George W. Bush can hear."

According to Mr. Gerard's theory this is how we can manifest anything we want. If we think about it hard enough we can achieve anything from obtaining fabulous wealth to causing somebody's head to blow up. Of course, if we have negative thoughts and vibrate to a negative pitch, bad things could happen to us and they'd be our own damn fault for having bad thoughts.

For those of you like me, who have grown tired of the inane promises made by everybody from television sales dudes to New Age Snake Oil salespeople, than you will appreciate Who Moved My Secret. Not only does it poke fun at the recent best seller The Secret it takes a swipe at the whole New Age movement with intelligence and humour.

I'm sure you'll be able to find Who Moved My Secret in most bookstores, well maybe not New Age ones, and I can predict, without even having to consult my oracle, that it will definitely put a smile on your face.

September 14, 2007

Book Review: Ovenman Jeff Parker

From J. D. Salinger's Catcher In The Rye on down, the modern novel has been replete with coming of age stories about dysfunctional males. Some of them have been tedious in their, oh so serious, examination of normal behaviour that most people grow out of, but a minority have managed to capture the flavour and feeling of the times they are set in.

While some see Salinger's work as the litmus test for books of this genre, and it's true it was probably the first work of fiction that showed an adolescent pimples and all, it's also very period specific. While the character of Holden Caufield may have some archetypical reference points for youth, so much of a young person's angst is going to centred around the things that they can relate to as part of their everyday culture that era is almost as important as character.

Not fitting in is the biggest fear for the majority of people at that stage in their lives. Taking the first steps in building an identity that is more than son, daughter, sister, or brother is a very scary business and the most important thing needed is reassurance that who you are is acceptable, even if it's with those most find completely unacceptable.

It's what made books like Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me and Douglas Coupland's Generation X so perfect for their respective eras. Farina's Gnossos was the ultimate in cool and free spirit – the epitome of what people dreamed of being in the sixties and Coupland's book spoke the language of those were stuck in the free fall, merry –go – round of going nowhere fast, with service industry jobs in the early days of the blank 1980's.
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For those looking for the anti-hero of the "nought" generation, those coming of age in the zero years of the 21st century, they could do no worse then gravitate towards When Thinfingers, the protagonist of Jeff Parker's first novel Ovenman. Published by Tin House Books and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada and Publishers Group West in the States it explodes off the page like a motorized board coming off the high wall.

This is not a ride for the faint of heart as the wheels barely ever stop spinning long enough for you to catch a breath. First thing you have to know about When is it and Thinfinger are his real names. His mom was sixteen when she gave birth to him and she was in labour so long that all she could say near the end was, when. She couldn't think of anything else to call him so it stuck. The Thinfinger came from his step dad, who formally adopted him when he was ten.

It was also his step dad that threw him out of home the day he showed up with both arms covered in tattoos from shoulder to wrist. It didn't matter that the guy doing the tattoos had exercised creative license while When was passed out. When may be a bad-ass skate boarder, who can bunny hop his mountain bike over curbs, rocks and other immovable objects, and be the lead screamer in a local punk outfit, but he has this un-cool streak a mile wide.

He passes out at the sight of blood and doesn't cope well with pain. Hanging with people who think nothing of branding themselves with red hot butter knives or covering themselves with multiple piercings, that makes him a little bit more of a loser than they are.

So it's a good thing that our boy When has another way of finding life satisfaction, his jobs for places on the lower end of the food service industry. Now we're not talking about the real low end, working for the franchises, but the small independents who specialize in mass production of ribs, pizza, and whatever else is hot or deep fried that can be stuffed down drunk and stoned college students and the service people that serve them.

When has work ethic, whether it's prepping salads, cleaning the grease pit, or holy of holies setting the pizza oven up for optimum loading and cooking of all sizes. Becoming the Ovenman at the coolest pizza joint in town makes him feel like things are coming together for him. So what if his live in girlfriend has nightmares about him murdering her, and sings in a top forty cover band? What does it matter that when his mountain bike gets stolen his best friend makes him buy it back from him? Does it really matter that he has to stick postit notes to his body so he can remember what happened the night before?

As Ovenman he gets to mop the floor last thing at night, and there's nothing he's prouder of than his ability to mop a floor spotless. He's even figured out how far he can push things when it comes to his theory of restaurant economics; how much is staff entitled to steal from ownership as a ratio of how much they are paid versus how much the establishment makes.

But, it all goes to shit when he's promoted to manager. Not that he can't do the job, and not that people aren't willing to work for him – but he's not allowed to do anything anymore but float and keep the customers satisfied. No more lining up pizzas in the oven, no more perfect way of cleaning out the grease tank, and worst of all no more final mop at the end of the night with the place to himself. Something's got to give and when it does, it's pretty spectacular.

Jeff Parker's Ovenman is about the kids you see covered with tattoos and piercings whose lives revolve around the scene and nothing else. The future isn't going to be any different from today, just more of the same jumping from dead end job to dead end job. Big dreams, like jumping a pit of rattle snakes on your skate board, come to naught because as dreams go they don't have much to do with anyone's version of reality.

Ovenman is funny, sad, and intelligent in all the right ways, with characters that are sometimes too real to be comfortable. In other words, they have a nasty way of making you think, or at least me think, there but for the grace of God go I. These aren't stupid kids, well not all of them anyway. They're just the ones who never had a chance from the moment of birth because they were born into a world that really didn't give a shit for what happened to them.

For every politician who makes a speech about the youth being our future and the need to invest in them, there are twenty When Thinfingers who are just trying to figure out the present. The future isn't a concept these kids think about except in terms of it being another day you have to get through.

August 25, 2007

Book Review: The Healthy Dead Stephen Erikson

The English language is replete with sayings about how to live our lives. Ranging from "you can never have enough of a good thing" to "everything in moderation", we seem to have covered all eventualities from hedonism to showing restraint. The problem is of course that not everyone can agree which code is the right one to live by.

The problems causes are legion, especially when one mind set is in the minority and the other forces their lifestyle choice on all around. Seeing as most hedonists are too busy enjoying themselves and their base natures they don't usually form a ruling block. More often then not those who end up in charge preach something akin to everything in moderation as it helps to have the majority of the population sober most of the time if you want to get anything done.

But what happens if that desire for good, healthy living itself becomes "you can never have enough of a good thing" and isn't taken in moderation? While their intentions are perhaps good, you know what they say about Hell and good intentions. At first it's just a few things, maybe banning intoxicants or ordering everyone on a strict vegetarian diet, but then gradually it gets to the point where they need a special police force to go around enforcing laws and measures become more and more draconian.

It's a situation like the latter which the people of the very good city of Quaint are dealing with in Steven Erikson's novella The Healthy Dead. Up until a while back, Quaint had been fairly typical of most city-states in and around the Malazan Empire with a despotic King and an equally venal court where if you wanted anything done it was best to know whose hands to cover in silver, gold if you could afford it.

Brothels and other house of less than savoury repute did a thriving business among the citizens and there were areas of town that the city watch wouldn't go in groups of less then a dozen for fear of the consequences. Things were ticking along fairly normally in other words until the King, Necrotus the Nihile met with the unfortunate accident of his younger brother wanting to be King in his stead.

At first King Macrotus was a welcome relief from his brother with his considerate nature and concern for his citizens well being. But then he started implementing mandatory exercise for all citizens, closing brothels and ale houses, outlawing intoxicants, and proscribing just about anything that could pass for fun. Finally, he sets to work on outlawing all things that kill, because if they can kill, they are unhealthy.

Then he gets it into his head that anybody injured while at work should be made into a saint, and not permitted to work anymore, but forced to pray to the Lady of Beneficence, the city's official and only legal religion. Every aspect of life is dictated by the Will of Wellness which sets forth laws about everything from babies crying and disturbing the well being of others, and the banning of medicines because they are alcohol based.

As a citizen of Quaint who is desperate to see changes for the worse in their city, there could be no better opportunity then the one parked outside their city walls. Everyone's favourite Necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, along with their erstwhile manservant Emancipator Reece, have set up camp in order to plot their next move. Having left the last town they visited in ruins they have decided on exercising a little restraint by circumventing Quaint on the way to hiring a boat to sail to somewhere else, preferably somewhere an army isn't chasing them.

It's at that point that two blessed saints step out of the bushes with a chest of gold to ask for the type of assistance that only necromancers are able to accomplish. You know, a little raising of the dead, some demon summoning; the usual stuff that makes the blood run cold. Of course this is a rather a unique experience for the two necromancers, to be the ones asked for assistance, as people are usually petitioning wizards and the such to run them out of town.

As Bauchelain points our very wisely to his manservant that any tyranny is possible when prefaced by idea that what is being done is for the good of the people. It's very hard, if not impossible, for anyone to complain without seeming like an ingrate, being branded the worse kind of social misfit, or even an enemy of the people.

As to be expected with a book featuring necromancers in the lead rolls, The Healthy Dead is filled with a mixture of dark humour and bodies in various states of decomposition. Even the former King get's involved when the boys free him from the spike that's been used to affix him as an adornment to the walls of the city. Naturally, he's a bit upset when he figures out that his brother poisoned him and he eventually falls to pieces - litterly. But that's okay because Bauchelain has a perfect glass container to hold his head in and just knows it will good in the study.

In his other books, you can hear that Erikson has a good ear for comedy and in this novel he puts it to good use. The undead say and do the darndest things sometimes and Erikson brings them to life – so to speak – with an amazing eye and ear for detail. From their physical descriptions to their arguments with their living relatives. There's nothing quite like hearing a family member come back from the dead to tell a son, or niece just what they really thought of them.

The Healthy Dead is a darkly humorous satire which is a delight and joy to read. The logic of hiring incredibly evil men to save your city from an excess of "goodness" is inescapable. What does it matter at times like these that one of them collects live human organs and binds them together with magic and tries to animate them as his children when you are living under the regime of terror like the people of Quaint are experiencing? Not much I'd say – you take your friends where you can find them in those circumstances and hope they don't stay around for too long after the job is done.

July 24, 2007

Book Review: The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales Edited Ellen Datlow &Terri Windling

You know about that one, that Old Coyote? He's sure one tricky fellow. He come over for tea you have to watch him all the time. He keeps sticking his nose where it don't belong – like in the jam jar or down the muzzle of a gun barrel and then gets feeling sorry for himself when he gets bit by wasps because he's covered in sweet stuff or gets his nose blown off by the shot gun because he forgot to make sure the safety was on before pulling the trigger with his nose down the barrel.

That's when you really have to watch out; when Coyote feels sorry for himself and thinks the world owes him something. Hoo Boy, then it's time to board up the windows and bury yourself in the root cellar cause you don't know just what could happen when that one starts to feel sorry for himself.

He gets all resentful and looks for someone to blame and you just have to hope he don't pick you. Sometimes he don't find anyone and then he gets depressed and starts moping about the house. Then he starts sighing –oh boy you don't want to have those Coyote sighs floating around in your house- you never know what they can turn into. He was doing a lot of sighing just around the first time that George Bush Jr. got elected president and you know what that's been like
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Well this other day that one, Old Coyote, he was around my house and he was looking as sorry for himself as I've ever seen him do. And I thought the world has enough trouble right now without more Coyote sighs loose in it, but I was ready for him this time. There's nothing Coyote likes better than to hear stories of himself and I thought I had the perfect thing for him.

Those people over at Penguin Canada have just put out a book full of tricky stories about Coyote and his extended family called The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling are the ones who went around and asked people to write down some tricky stories from all over the world and I knew there would have to be some in here that Old Coyote have not heard before.

"Old Coyote" I says "Come over here. Get your head up from off your paws lying there out in the yard like dumb dog and stop your sighing. Have a nice cup of tea; I want to tell you some stories that people have written down about you and your family and friends around the world. Very tricky stuff."

I could see he was interested because of the way he pricked up his ears when I said they were stories about him and tricky ones too, but he had to pretend he wasn't because he's Coyote and he likes to feel sorry for himself. But he picked himself up and came and sat on the veranda with me and let me pour him some of that tea which he likes with four cubes of sugar and no milk.

So when he was comfortable with his mug of tea I picked up the book and decided I'd read him the story about his Uncle Tompa from Tibet. Well it's not really a story but a poem by that nice woman writer Midori Snyder who has written lots of stories.

This poem is just called "Uncle Tompa" and because not many people over in this world know about Coyote's Uncle Tompa from Tibet (he's not really his uncle you know, but one of those old friends of the family you just call Uncle because you sure aren't going to call him mister) and it describes all the tricky things that Uncle to make people look silly. And Coyote, he smiles, cause it reminds him of an especially dirty story involving an uppity virgin bride to be and her wealthy father and what Tompa did to them both to take them down a peg or two.
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I don't think anyone wants to hear that story so I decide to read him another from the book so he won't tell it. This one's a little longer; it's one by that Charles de Lint fellow. "Crow Roads" is what it's called and it's not a ha, ha, tricky story, it's more an hmm, make you think about things tricky story. The type that make you wonder about what goes on in the shadow of a tree when you look at it from the corner of your eye- that sort of story.

Now Coyote liked that story and asked if there were any more stories, and of course there were, and all of them good. That Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling know their stuff when it comes to putting together collections of stories after all. This is the third of what they call their Mythic Anthology Series, and if those first two The Green Man: Tales From The Mythic Forest and The Faery Reel: Tales From The Twilight Realm are as good as this one owning all three would be a good thing, especially if you get Coyote visiting often like I do.

Now this book is just filled with tricky tales of all sorts, and of course Coyote comes inot them too which is right and proper as he himself puts it. In fact the very first story has his sister trying to fix the world. Always a dangerous business when Old Woman Coyote tries to fix a young man's world, for the young man that is, because if he don't heed the teaching he'll be mighty uncomfortable for a long time.

Of course some of Coyote's friends and family aren't just out to trick you to teach you a lesson, they may want to do bad things to you and than you have to be the tricky one if you want to get away. The young girls in the Irish school learn that about Queen Mab of the faery all right in the story "Friday Night At St. Cecilia's" by that Ellen Klages. Now that story made Coyote a little nervous, but he liked the trick at the end the young girl did to save herself and her friend.

Well Coyote and me, we had a good time that afternoon sipping out tea, (well he slurps his if you want to know the truth) him listening to me reading stories about tricky people from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. I had forgotten how big Coyote's family was and how many friends the tricky guy has. By the time he decided it was time to go home, he wasn't feeling sorry for himself no more and was laughing under his breath as he trotted along down the road.

Any thing that can make Coyote stop feeling sorry for himself is a good thing, I thought as I sat and watched the sun go under the ground at the end of the road, and the stories in The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales that Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have picked out are good stories for that.

I picked up Coyote's mug, and our pot of tea and carefully put the book under my arm to remember to take it inside. Tricky stories like those ones can't be left just lying around; you just never know what they might get up to.

June 10, 2007

Book Review: Practical Demonkeeping Christopher Moore

You know there's nothing quite like finding you've summoned up a demon from hell to ruin your day. Okay so you can exercise some control over it, but still he's not what you'd call the greatest company in the world what with his annoying habit of needing to eat people on a daily basis. Even though you can direct him towards drug pushers, pimps, and other assorted slime, it still doesn't change the fact that you're responsible for ensuring a fellow human being is digested on a regular basis.

For those of you who ever find yourself in that sort of a situation Practical Demonkeeping, Christopher Moore's first novel, might just be the place to turn for a few pointers on what to and not to do. At the very least it will teach you not to mess around with things that you don't understand. For instance, if you ever find scrolls rolled up and sealed inside candle sticks, especially ones that are hidden in a Catholic church, you'll know not to read them out loud just to see what will happen.

Like Travis O'Hearn finds out that even though there might be some satisfaction to be felt from seeing your nemesis getting crunched between the teeth of a demon from the days of Solomon, you're left with a problem you can't escape. Oh he tried when it all started back in 1917. It was when he was in seminary school and was being badly mistreated by one of the priest-teachers that it all started.
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After being whipped so badly that he was left with a bleeding back, Travis was ordered by the priest to polish two candlesticks that were a treasure sent from the Vatican. If he returned and found them smudged he promised Travis more of the same. When Travis discovered the crack he was terrified, when he discovered it unscrewed and contained a scrawl he was curious. We all know about curiosity don't we.

When the demon, Catch, shows up as a result of reading the invocation, Travis decides to take off. He grabs the candlesticks when Catch is distracted – he went off to eat the priest – and grabs a train. Unfortunately he leaves the candlesticks with a young woman he meets as payment for her buying his train ticket. Unfortunately because the second stick holds the invocation to return Catch to the netherworld from which he came.
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Travis realizes that he must find the young woman if he is to have any hope of riding himself of Catch's company. So this odd couple travels across the United States looking for a woman named Amanda who had been engaged to be married to a young man whose name started with an E and served in the American army in World War One.

It's this search that brings them to Pine Cove California where they meet a collection of characters almost as eccentric as they are. It's also where Travis's search will come to an end. But will he be able to read the invocation that sends Catch back before Catch can convince somebody else to read the original incantation and replace Travis as his master and rule the world together.
Each character we meet is drawn in loving detail by one of the artists of character creation. Even in his first book Moore shows the affinity he has for those who look at life from a slightly different angle and a compassion for those who have had to rise out of the ashes of a previous existence to recreate themselves as something newer and better.

What I find amazing about re-reading this book again after about ten years, and reading a number of his other books in between, is how sophisticated his dialogue was in his first book. In fact if you were to read Moore's books in no particular order you would be hard pressed to notice anything about this book that would mark it as a first novel.

He does such a complete job on creating everything that it's like the world and his characters already existed, they were just waiting for him to come along and write their story. While you might expect that from an established writer, to find that talent already evident in a first novel is quite extraordinary. It's like Moore came out of the egg ready to write.

Practical Demonkeeping contains all the elements that one has come to expect from a Christopher Moore novel; bizarre characters, twisted humour, moments of side splitting hilarity, and the occasional instance of real pathos. There is no false sentiment in his novels or deep philosophy, and on occasion you may question his sanity, but in the end they are also some of the realest books you'll ever read.

The fact that fifteen years after the publication of his first novel his books are as fresh, funny, and interesting as ever is an indication of his originality of mind and creative ingenuity. Whenever our world gets to be just a little too much for you, I recommend a quick trip into the mind of Christopher Moore; you'll be amazed at how much better you feel.

May 30, 2007

Book Review: Coyote Blue Christopher Moore

You have to be careful when you invite Old Man Coyote over for a visit, you can never be sure what that one will get up to. Of course he's one tricky fellow, which is something you can never forget, but he's also one crazy dude as well and can make your life twenty different kinds of bad news if you're not careful.

Usually a Coyote tale is lots of trouble for those involved in them, especially at the start. When Coyote chases his tail he stirs up a person's life like he's created a little tornado that picks up all the pieces and throws them around like trailers in a trailer park. When he's done chasing that tail he sits there and smile his big idiot grim like he's done something real special; like he's done the person who the tale is about a real favour.

Now putting an Old Man Coyote tale in the hands of a tricky fellow like Christopher Moore is just asking for a whole bunch of messy circumstances. Christopher Moore has more than a little bit of the contrary nature in him to begin with without him messing around with that Coyote fellow.

Oh sure he look's innocent enough but he's written all sorts of books about death, religion, cannibalism, sex, vampires and necrophilia. And that was only one book, well maybe two. But strange things happen in his books, Things usually turn out okay for the people in the books at the end, but there's usually a lot of weirdness before it's all over with.
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Coyote Blue is one of those sorts of tales, and with Coyote himself walking through the pages you just know it's going to be even stranger than is normal, if you can even use the word normal for describing a Christopher Moore book, and you're in for a wild ride. Of course not as wild as the guy who Coyote's hitched his little red wagon to.

On the surface Sam Hunter looks like he's got it made. He's mid thirties, makes a fortune, drives a Mercedes, lives in an exclusive condo in one of San Francesco's classiest neighbourhoods. He's an insurance salesman who not only sells every policy he sets out to sell, but owns a chunk of the company as well.

He's also a shell; great to look at on the outside but completely empty on the inside. He's also not really Sam Hunter, but Samuel Hunts Alone from the Montana Crow Indian reservation.. At fifteen he pushed a Bureau of Indian Affairs' cop off a bridge and had to leave home, change his name and cut himself off from what little family he used to have.

His parents had died when he was young and he had been raised by his grandmother and his Clan uncle Percy Eagle Wing. People were of two minds about Percy, the rest of the tribe thought he was a crazy old drunken fool and Percy thought he was medicine man. Turns out they were both right, because on Percy's vision quest before entering manhood he had seen his spirit totem and it had been Coyote.

From that point on he knew he was screwed so he just went with it. If that meant living a life completely contrary then he did – he became the example of what you didn't want to be when you grew up that parents would use on miscreant children. You keep that up you'll end up like Percy. That's what Coyote medicine can do to you, or at least that's how Percy would explain things to his nephew.
Coyote Blue.jpg
Of course young Sampson just had to go and see Old Coyote on his vision quest. Percy gave him his medicine bundle of fur and teeth and wished him luck. It wasn't too long after that Sampson was sitting on a bus bound for somewhere, far away where no one would know him.

But you can't escape who you are forever. Sooner or later you're going to have to own up to it. At least sometimes it can be for a good reason. On the day Coyote walks back into Sam's life Calliope Kincaid walks in as well. In fact you can say that Coyote introduced them – if you call sticking a knife into her tire and giving her a flat so Sam can offer her a drive an introduction.

The price he has to pay for Calliope is giving up his shinning fake life. Coyote makes sure of that by getting him booted from his condo by turning into his animal self and having his way with all the cats in the complex before eating them; threatening two clients of Sam's to the extent that they are going to press charges against his company; and sending bikers after his landlord.

But he gets the girl, sort of. He gets too freaked out by losing his life and makes Coyote fix it so that he keeps his job and his apartment. But now he's lost the girl. He has to make a choice about which is more important and in the end he goes with his heart. Aided, abetted, and equal parts frustrated by Old Man Coyote he manages to find Calliope just outside of Las Vegas.

She's chasing down the father of her child who's stolen him and taken him on a run with his motorcycle gang. These are fun loving chaps into liquid speed and PCP for professional and recreational purposes so aren't the easiest to come to terms with over issues like child custody.

Somehow or other they all end up back on Crow Reservation in Montana where everything gets played out in the end. After chasing his tail for close to twenty years, this Coyote tale brought Sam home to where he was Samuel Hunts Alone a real person not Sam Hunter all façade and shiny finish with a hollow core.

The Crow people believe that Coyote created the world and human beings so he could have people tell stories about him to keep him alive for all time. Sometimes even the Gods have to die for a while and then all that remains are their stories we tell each other.

Christopher Moore in Coyote Blue has written a Coyote story that is funny, and sad at the same time. Like all good Coyote stories it gives a life lesson or two; in this case they are finding out what is truly important in life and being true to who you are. Perhaps it's because it was the first book of his that I read, but I still think of it as his best one. The characters are strong and the plot is great and the story moves at the perfect pace. That he's caught the essence of a Coyote story to perfection a well doesn't hurt.

I love to see Old Man Coyote chasing his tail and Christopher Moore has done a great job with this book of keeping Old Man Coyote alive for anybody who cares to catch a glimpse of the tricky bugger. Just be careful that you don't get left holding the bag – or some other part of his anatomy that he's decided he doesn't want to use at the moment.

March 31, 2007

Book Review: Christopher Moore Island Of The Sequined Love Nun

If you were Tucker Case you'd be surprised too if someone offered you a job flying a private Lear jet. It's not too often you can crash a plane with an initiate into the mile high club sitting in your lap as you attempt to land, destroy the plane, cause bodily harm to the one straddling you, while your blood alcohol level is somewhere in the stratosphere and still be considered a viable choice for flying a few million dollars of private plane.

So Tucker is to be forgiven if he's a little suspicious of the offer, but at the same time he knows that short of hijacking a flight he won't be seeing the inside of a cockpit anywhere the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) have anything to say about the matter. With no other alternatives lining up, and a sudden need to leave the country (in the form of a civil suit filled by a certain young lady who most recently filled his lap and his plane's windshield)

That's how things go for Tucker Case; things happen to him without him taking much initiative. He had drifted into being a pilot through happening to meet someone. It was the same for getting the job flying the pink jet of The Mary Jean Cosmetic Company. That it was said jet he left in pieces on a runway made it all the more imperative that he leave the country. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, hell's never met a pissed off corporate, Southern Belle Christian, make up executive who carries a Smith & Wesson in her handbag..

So Tucker doesn't even wonder that much about why a couple of Methodist missionaries need him to fly one a top of the line Lear jet from a mysteriously well financed compound on an isolated island in Micronesia. Of course in his travels to get to the island Tucker has run into a fruit bat named Renaldo who wears aviator shades and speaks Filipino, his cross dressing owner Kimi, Victor the ghost of a bomber pilot from World War Two who is worshipped as a God by the Shark people of the small atoll Alualu, caught in a typhoon in a small boat, almost eaten by sharks, and then almost eaten by the one Shark person who still thinks they should practice cannibalism, (Human's taste sort of like Spam) so he's got a little bit more on his mind when he first arrives then to wonder about his new bosses.

Some of you might have picked up a few clues by now, but for those who are like Tucker and content to just play along and hope things turn out okay, I'll let you in on the secret. This is just the opening salvo in the full side barrage of strangeness that Christopher Moore has in store for you in his 1997 novel Island Of The Sequined Love Nun.

Christopher Moore has specialized in writing bizarre stories where instead of having heroic characters that look danger in the eye and laugh at death, death is usually having a good laugh at his characters but has the decency to invite them to join in. Danger is something you would avoid if you could but the story wouldn't be half as good if there wasn’t any so the characters will just have to suck it up and cope as best as they can.

Yes I know that sounds like a strange thing to say about a novel and its writer, but what else can you say about an author who creates a story where islanders worship the pilot of a World War Two B-26 and the half naked woman painted on her nose cone as his representative on earth is The Sky Priestess.

Periodically The Sky Priestess will bring messages to the Shark people and bring them gifts of cargo from Victor. Of course occasionally she will have to punish them for some deviation from the true path and cut off their supply of People Magazineor take away their coffee supplies for a week or so. In exchange for this bounty periodically one of the Shark people are chosen, only to return ten days later with a mysterious scar running across their backs.

Of course we might think the islanders and Tucker are the biggest schmucks around for not cluing in as to what's going on, but than again neither do we until we learn all the facts. We may know that his employers are running some sort of scam on the natives, but we can't be sure what until Tucker finds the last clue.

Christopher Moore is probably one of the most optimistic writers I've ever read, but he's not blind to what the world is like. There are plenty of sick and twisted greed heads out there who have no problems with harvesting organs from the poorest and least educated people in the world. Well it's the only thing left that we haven't stolen from them yet so it really shouldn't come as a surprise.

Yet in spite of knowing that these types of people exist he also believes that if properly motivated others will do amazing things to help their fellow beings. So it seems perfectly logical that Tucker steals a 747 jet to rescue the islanders from the clutches of the good missionary and his wife and their plans to harvest all their internal organs.

People seem to get the impression that Christopher Moore is cynical and jaded. Look they'll say he is making fun of people's beliefs by having the Shark people treating People magazine like sacred texts. The truth of the matter is that while he may be saying that blind faith is silly and that you need to believe in more than material goods.

Kimi, the afore mentioned cross dresser and the ancient cannibal discover that they were both being trained in the art of being a Navigator. The ability to read the stars, call thunder and build the traditional outriggers canoes of the islands were all part of the duties and knowledge that the Navigator held. Moore presents these facts in the beautiful matter of fact manner that I've come to recognize as his hallmark of sneaking things into our hearts via our funny bone.

Island of the Sequined Love Num is outrageous, hilarious, bawdy, crude and a wonderful book about the need to have faith and to believe in something, even if it is only your own ability to do the right thing. Christopher Moore is a the master of writing a story that's as far from being a message book as you can get, and planting a message firmly in the reader's brain at the same time.


January 14, 2007

Book Review: Don Marquis The Annotated Archy And Mehitabel

With Apologies To Don Marquis
I've been having this bad habit of falling asleep with my laptop turned on recently. I don't know if it's my medication or what, but one moment I'll be typing away and the next moment I'll be waking up from a half hour power nap lucky not to have spilled my coffee all the way through my bed.

Well, at some point in the middle of the night this must have happened again. I woke up to find the article I had been working on erased and the piece of work below written in its place. I must admit to some confusion as to why the "insect" in question refers to my laptop as an old typewriter and wonders why I don't own a computer. True the laptop in question is ten years old and the keys are a bit stiff, but still.

Of course a cockroach, if my mysterious writer is to be believed in his claims about his heritage, would have difficulty operating the shift key. Holding it down and depressing the letters simultaneously would involve having legs a lot longer then I'd personally want to see on a cockroach. The solitary "I" is set as an auto correct by the software, which explains it's existence, but I still think he's avoided using the punctuation only for effect. Not one of those keys involves the shift key to operate.

Anyway I thought the novelty of his submission merited keeping it intact. I'm sure our readers will be able to discern his meaning without too much trouble and that his insights into one of the greater comic writers of the early twentieth century would be intriguing. So I'll just let him tell it in his own words

boss I must tell you about this guy don marquis
but before we get started I want you to know how hard it is for me to type not able to use punctuation or the shift key as I'm forced to jump on each key with my head
why you are still using an old manual typewriter when everyone else has computers is beyond me
anyhow back to don marquis he was a newspaper guy back in the days when newspaper guys were writers as well as being journalists yes I know that sounds hard to believe but it was true back in the early days of the twentieth century
don was born in the real dark ages before electricity in 1878 and ended up in new york city writing for the newspaper trade in the teen years of the twentieth century
thats when archy the cockroach the reincarnated vers libre poet was first introduced to a disbelieving world
you see boss they were a lot more sceptical back then than people are today so they had a hard time believing it was a cockroach typing those columns every other day or so in the same plucky manner you see me doing here for you now
you dont believe me boss well hell all you have to do is check out your local bookseller for one of them penguin classic books theyve just put out a whole new version of archys work under the pen name of don marquis of course cause like you some people have a hard time believing that a cockroach can write anything
even in these supposed enlightened times a cockroach is treated like something that needs to be crunched under the heel do you know how many poetic souls are being scraped off soles every day
I digress and Im sorry boss but it makes my blood boil to think of all those souls who will have to transmigrate again to another body maybe not even as evolved as a cockroach
the book the book alright alright the book its called the - help me out somebody boss do the keys for html or will never hear the end of it the annotated archy and mehitabel you lazy so and so you couldnt stretch yourself to consider putting a higher case letter on either dear old archy or poor old mehitabel
you know there was never a finer feline thats lived according to what archy wrote for his boss then mahitabel she used to say that she was the reincarnation of cleopatra which was quite a funny but archy was a gentleman and let her have her vanities because she was his friend in an aside id also say that archy was probably just a little more then a little in love with mehitabel
well if you think people have a problem with same sex spousal things today cross species would have just been too much for the likes of the world back then
even me liberal free spirited cockroach that I am would be hard pressed not to be a little upset by that idea.
but I think archy knew it were a hopeless cause and he wasnt one for an overt amount of brooding
well he must have done some sort of brooding on occasion because he did commit suicide to become the cockroach
oh well thats for bigger minds or ones that arent being bashed against the keys of an old remington every night to figure out
you know that their relationship didnt exactly get off on the right foot with mehitabel mistaking archy for a late night snack and forcing him to hide in the keys of the typewriter
but once she found he was a writer who could properly immortalize her why she was a lot less keen on eating him and keener to talk about herself
toujours gai she'd say always happy arhcy toujous gai and shed give him that big toothy smile that would probably have made him nervous as much as anything else and go off into the night to try her luck
she was your regular society girl was our mehitabel boss
only being inconvenienced in a minor way by her natural inclinations like motherhood
but if she had one weakness aside from her pride and desire to always be a lady it was for the men folk of her species
ah boss the stories shed tell old archy about her men whod leave her high and dry but she kept her tail up proud and plump and it was always toujours gai archy toujours gai

now of course archy working at a newspaper as he did had to give his readers more diverse reading matter than only that pertaining to the live of a cat no matter how interesting mehitabel thought herself there was news happening in the world at the time as important as her story
periodically archy would go into the field to report
from washington d c he found that the insects there were so plentiful that nobody even noticed another cockroach
he reported that in the capital building no attention was paid to him because there were so many other insects around
it gives you a great idea of the american people he said when you see some of the things they elect
he discovered what we all know too well today that everything is going great and that anybody who says things arent are spreading propaganda of the enemy the department of publicity is doing its best to suppress all rumours that it didnt start itself
washington sure doesnt sound much different today then it did back in archys day does it boss
you know it seems like this don marquis fellow got quite famous off the back of my distant ancestor archy all cockroaches are related boss havent you noticed the similarity yet
sure he may have written a couple of plays and other books and a screenplay or two but who would have heard of him today if it werent for archy and mehitabel the book isnt called the annotated don marquis now is it
they even made an animated movie about the life of archy and mehitabel-
boss I really need your help this time be a pal- Shinebone Alley and you can't say they did that about old don marquis can you.
Well I guess theres no use complaining as thats usually a cockroaches lot even if they are remembered somebody else is taking the credit for their work but as mehitabel would have said to archy if he had complained to her about it
toujours gai archy always smiling toujours gai

Well that's where it ended, this epistle from my mysterious visitor in the night who felt the need to write about the Penguin Classic's release of The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis. I did some checking up and found that such a book does exist and it includes a really good biography of Don in the forward by Michael Sims.

This collection is the first time all the poems are gathered together in the order that they were first published in the New York Evening Sun as part of Don's column "The Sun Dial". It would appear that in spite of his cockroach bias my anonymous contributor knows his stuff. So from now on I'm going to be keeping a eye out for a slightly stooped cockroach around the house; one with the high forehead the result of an unusually large intellect, or from having your head beaten against a solid object repeatedly. I can only hope none of our cats come upon him while he's typing, there's not much room in a computer laptops keyboard for a cockroach, no matter how small, to hide.